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