It is Freaky Friday again. As promised, I have a quasi true crime topic. We’re going to look at a couple of films about a family of real-life modern day outlaws. Let’s get down to business.
New members of Netflix streaming are asked to rate movies in order to generate recommendations. I enjoy documentaries, and I rated quite a few. One of my first recommendations from Netflix streaming, therefore, was The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.
I decided to watch it based solely Netflix’s summary:
Hailing from Boone County, W. Va., mountain dancer Jesco White may be the most famous member of the White clan — thanks to the 1991 documentary The Dancing Outlaw — but he’s hardly the most colorful. This film focuses on the rest of the brood. Director Julien Nitzberg spent a year with five generations of the West Virginia family — and spoke to various members of their community (including the sheriff) — to provide this colorful portrait.
Never having seen The Dancing Outlaw, I didn’t know what to expect. The film started with commentary from members of the Boone County justice system, a female evangelist, and Hank Williams III.
I’ll be honest here. It was Hank III who hooked me. If there is any outlaw country left, that man is singing it.
To get an idea of of The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia watch the trailer:
To fully appreciate the Whites, it’s important understand how these outlaws became the subject of a documentary. The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia was not the family’s first run-in with the TV folks.
Donald Ray White (aka D. Ray White) achieved regional fame as a mountain dancer. He participated in the Smithsonian Folkways documentary Talking Feet: Solo Southern Dance: Buck, Flatfoot and Tap . In 1985, D. Ray was shot to death in a dispute with a neighbor. Also injured in the shooting were his sons Dorsey and Jesco.
Cut to 1991. Jesco–to some extent–was carrying on his father’s mountain dancing. He became the subject of the Jacob Young’s PBS documentary The Dancing Outlaw. Click here to watch the trailer. The Dancing Outlaw is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
In The Dancing Outlaw, Jesco’s struggle with mental illness and drug addiction is introduced. Jesco’s drug addition fueled many of his brushes with the legal system. His troubled marriage is the subject of the most famous clip from The Dancing Outlaw:
The Dancing Outlaw led to Jesco appearing on an episode of Roseanne as a hillbilly relative of Dan’s. I’ve read online that this footage was ultimately cut.
Jacob Young made another documentary about Jesco titled Dancing Outlaw 2: Jesco Goes to Hollywood. The film White Lightenin’ (2009) is loosely based on the life of Jesco White. Jesco appeared in Beck’s “Loser” video (look for Jesco at the 2:38 mark).
It’s important to know about Jesco because his celebrity played a large part in putting the White family on the map. Now, onto the Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.
The White family could be their own true crime reality show. We’re talking murder, standoffs with the police, all angles of the drug trade, and just general hell-raising. The subject matter of the film is very dark and serious. In spite of all this, they’re incredibly entertaining people.
At the time of filming, one White was awaiting sentencing for shooting his aunt’s boyfriend in the face with a shotgun—the guy lived—and then having a standoff with police. The accused tells about the whole incident in a calm, coherent manner. And it’s not funny.
But stuff like the scene where the viewer is introduced to his mother is funny.
Another White gives birth to a daughter and promptly loses the baby to child protective services. The mother’s addiction to prescription drugs is implied to be the reason for the seizure of the child. And it’s serious.
But stuff like the drive home from the hospital is hysterical.
The same White who lost her baby to child protective services also stabbed her ex. He lived, but she never faced charges for the stabbing because her grandmother hid the knife. The manner in which she tells the story is a fantastic character study.
And that scene leaves me with my favorite takeaway from The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia:
Several of the White clan mention jail and prison time. During the course of the documentary, one White was released from prison. The documentary segues into a vignette of her search for her wayward (cheating) husband.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is definitely not for everybody. Hank Williams III, though he appeared in the documentary, denounced the film for focusing only on the darker aspects of the White clan. A google search will net just as many negative reviews as positive.
I enjoyed this documentary, though. It’s a true—though maybe not as serious as the subject matter warrants—portrait of a family of modern day outlaws. The writer in me could not be more fascinated.
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