Netflix Instant Pick: America’s Mountain Culture

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There are some cities in America that lend themselves to being featured on screen, Boston and New York come to mind. Perhaps it’s because the strongest personalities in Hollywood just happen to call these places home. But I’ve always had a fascination with places a little more remote, where life is intertwined with the landscape and in some cases even dictated by it. I’m speaking of course about America’s Mountain Culture, particularly Appalachia and the Ozarks.

Jesco White, "The Dancing Outlaw"

I watched The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009) a few months ago purely on a whim. It’s a documentary that chronicles a year in the life of the notorious White family of Boone County, West Virginia, a family made “famous” by its patriarch D. Ray White, the king of mountain dancing. We see his widow Bertie Mae throughout the film, a woman so selfless it makes the rest of the brood downright despicable. Touted as America’s last outlaw family, the Whites are an amalgamation of thieves, drug dealers,  and addicts, with a reputation for destruction in Boone. But the most intriguing personality in this family is Bertie and D. Ray’s son Jesco White, the only other member of the family to master the art of mountain dancing. Jesco is a man tortured by many demons, but the second he performs, the years of heavy drinking, smoking, and drugging melt away and we are met with a man who missed his calling as a national entertainer.

This documentary is about the Whites, but it is also about West Virginia, and the people who live there. Coal mining is still a way of life for many, and poverty runs rampant. But despite the hard times, the mountains call to these people, and together a unique relationship is formed. A bond with the land that makes it difficult to leave. We see that these people feel left behind by the rest of the country, and a once vibrant piece of the American tapestry is left to fray under the pressure of a rapidly declining mining economy.

But the resolve of the people of Boone County is unmistakable. In fact, they wish more attention was payed to the good that can come from tucked away corners of the world, and not families like the Whites. A county official is interviewed for the film and tells the story about a local kid getting a full-ride scholarship to MIT. “Why aren’t they following him around with a camera,” he asks. The answer of course is simple. Why is Jersey Shore watched by millions. I understand the frustration of the good citizens of Boone, who pay their taxes and wish that the stereotypes associated with the “backwoods” of Appalachia would stop being reenforced by probing documentarists. But I also think that at the very least The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia aims to capture a moment in time about a group of people that are slowly disappearing under the weight of their own fame and self-destruction. Like it or not, the Whites represent a unique portrait of Appalachian life, and I think they deserve a place in film memory.

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone

For another excellent film featuring America’s mountain culture (this time in the Ozarks) I recommend the painful yet beautiful Winter’s Bone. Jennifer Lawrence portrays a quiet yet fierce young woman determined to save her family’s house and find out the truth about her father’s disappearance. Similar to The Wild Whites, Winter’s Bone examines the oftentimes complicated relationship between family loyalty, and fending for yourself. It shows a lawless land governed by alliances and swift retribution for defectors.

Watch Winter’s Bone here and The Wild Whites here.

Netflix Instant Pick runs every Thursday on Filmhash. Past picks are here.


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3 thoughts on “Netflix Instant Pick: America’s Mountain Culture

  1. I am from West Virginia, my name is Brayden Schell and I think its horrible on how we are all petrayed as Hillbillies and rednecks. We are not all like that at ALL. Some of us out here have some common sense and are educated and down right good people. We shouldnt be judged on what you hear or watch from other people perspectives. We might night be living the city life but by damn we do a good job living the country life with the aspects of the modern word. I am 20 years old and I may have dropped out of high school but that was only because I partied out of school. I went on to go to a military school called “Mountaineer Challenge Academy” and recieved my GED their. Then I went to college at Fairmont State University to get my degree in Architecture. People need to make documentaries on the so called well-ronded people of West Virginia, and stop making us out to be stupid and embred. I can tell you one thing im sick of people looking at WV the way they do. Any further comments or messaged can be replied on here or on my Faceboo at http://www.facebook.com/brayschell09 , or you can email me at BraySchell09@yahoo.com

  2. Sorry I noticed I spelled a few words wrong in my last comment. Im setting here preaching about how were educated and I spell words incorrectly. Sorry about that 🙂

  3. Hi Brayden-thanks so much for taking the time to share your story and thoughts. I can definitely sympathize with your feelings regarding Hollywood’s often lackluster portrayal of West Virginians (also Southerners). I want to reiterate that at no point while watching the Wild Whites did I associate their behavior with all of Appalachia. Their struggles with drugs and battling demons can happen to anyone, anywhere in this country, and sadly it does. Why didn’t they make a documentary about that young man on his way to MIT? We know why. Because that story doesn’t sell as many tickets. I will stand by my statement though, that regardless of how you feel about this family, their story is a compelling one that sheds light on the pitfalls of fame, legacy, economic struggle, drugs, and blind defiance. I don’t know if you had a chance to see the documentary, but there were plenty of people from Boone who were just as upset that this documentary was being made as you. The important thing to remember is that every town, in every state has a White family, or two or three that seem to get all the attention. Maybe one day we’ll see a documentary about that kid in MIT from a small town in West Virginia who did great things.

    Thanks again for reading and taking the time to respond, we really do appreciate it!

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