If you haven’t heard of Jesco White, I strongly suggest you get yourself down to Naro Video and rent the documentary The Dancing Outlaw (or watch it online).
This 1991 cult classic had a dual focus: White’s mountain dancing (a mash up of clogging and tap native to Appalachia) and his multiple personalities (Jesse, Jesco, and Elvis). Since Outlaw’s production, Jesco White (and, by association, his extended family) has become a cult hero. He was wooed by the mainstream long enough to make a buck off him, only to then be tossed back to the wilds of Boone County, WV (and its poverty and crime).
I’m especially connected to the White story, its haunting, honest demonstration of rural Appalachian life. I grew up near its setting, complete with coal-miner father and grandfathers, moonshiners and Old Regular Baptists. I have clear first-person memories of the two types of lifestyles, Bible or Devil. I have memories of those owing their lives to the coal companies, and those who would rather live a life full of struggle and rebellion in protest to its far-reaching tentacles.
More people from my youth than I care to mention didn’t make it to age thirty, taken by the scourge of alcohol and drug abuse, coupled with the romanticized notion of gun violence (reaching all the back to the Hatfield/McCoy feuds of yore–still discussed with a mixture of respect and regret). A large portion of the Appalchian population falls into lives (and deaths) similar to the Whites–they just don’t all have a buck-dancing cult hero in their family tree making their stories available on DVD.
Recently, White and his family resurfaced on a new documentary. The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, which enjoyed successful runs on the film festival circuit earlier this year, catches up with Jesco & Co. nearly 20 years after our first visit with them, and our first exposure to the poetry and sadness of his voice. (Never mind it was saying lines such as: “I took the butcher knife and put it up to her neck; I said, ‘If you want to live to see tomorrow, you better start fryin’ them eggs a little bit better than what you a fryin’ em.'”)
Boingboing.net calls the film “The Sopranos meets Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I don’t disagree.
Jesco remains at the center of the action, joined by his mother, Bertie Mae, now 84 years old and knocking on heaven’s proverbial door. His sister Mamie (“the biggest, the meanest, and the baddest”) plays a more prominent role here than she and her “baw haw in” (read: bajaing–four-wheeling) did in 1991. We also meet younger members of the White clan. We see some get out of prison as others enter. We see babies born as elders pass away. We see the middle generation struggle with addiction and poverty, unable to escape the “outlaw” fate visited on them partly by family and partly by location. We see youngsters begin their march toward the hell they all say they expect to enter upon death.
I interviewed Director Julien Nitzberg recently. It’s admittedly long and strong, for which I apologize up front, but as you’ll see, Nitzberg has some crazy stories to tell. Films like this may appear to some as “rednecksploitation,” and I’m inclined to agree that not everyone with whom the Whites have surrounded themselves over the years has had the family’s best interests at heart. That said, it’s clear the Whites are well aware of their dire circumstances and actively choose to be as hellraising and carefree as they can, while they can.
AltDaily:Were you involved in The Dancing Outlaw and if so, how?
Julien Nitzberg: I met Mamie White back in 1989 when I was living in eastern Kentucky and working at a place called Appalshop that made documentaries for PBS about Appalachian issues. I was making a documentary about Boone County’s famous rockabilly and proto-punk singer Hasil Adkins. Hasil and D. Ray White, the famous tap-dancing patriarch of the White family, used to perform together, so the Whites were good friends of Hasil’s. I was shooting a concert with Hasil and a crazed catfight broke out between three female fans of Hasil. This fight was like something out of an old Western and went on forever. Finally Mamie White jumped in and broke it up, tossing each woman to a different side of the bar like they were baby dolls. She was on acid that night and was pissed the catfight was ruining her good party.
A week later, I saw Mamie again and she was on acid again. She kindly invited me to her birthday party where she promised me she would have a “cake with tits and a pussy on it.” As a man who loves cake, I found this to be an offer I couldn’t refuse. At her house I met Jesco and immediately became obsessed with the whole family. I went back the next week and shot the first footage of Jesco. I tried to get Appalshop to let me make my documentary about Jesco but they were not into it. I couldn’t figure out how to get the money to do it. I sent my footage to Jacob Young, whom I’d worked with on a great Troma film by Danny Boyd called Strangest Dreams: Invasion of the Space Preachers. Jacob worked at a PBS station in Morgantown, W.V. He loved the footage and I brought him down to Boone County and introduced him to the family.
Through some less-than-moral behavior on Jacob’s part, I went from director of it to doing sound and being an associate producer on Dancing Outlaw. Some great scenes from my original pre-Dancing Outlaw footage are a bonus feature on the DVD.
Coming off of what the audience is used to from seeing Dancing Outlaw, what (if anything) took you by surprise by the Whites circa 2008-9?
It was such a different experience making this film than Dancing Outlaw. I was 23 or 24 when I first met the Whites and I was in awe of Jesco and Mamie. I made this 20 years later, and it seems like the family has gotten a lot darker in many ways. It’s hard to tell if that might be partly because I am older and more sensitive to darkness, or that they are older and are living just as hard as when they were young. Of course, when Jesco was young he was huffing gas, which was a dark, fucked thing to do. Somehow now that I’m older, that made me sadder because I love Jesco and the rest of the family so much.
My initial reaction at the end of the film was sadness. The last scene is Mamie (grandma) smoking a joint at a public park while various White children are at the playground. The kids are shown sneaking cigarettes and a toddler screams “fuck” into a megaphone. One of the major themes seems to be: if you don’t get out of Boone County, your prospects are hopeless to become anything beyond another outlaw. Did you end it with the youngest members exhibiting badass behaviors on purpose?
Of course we ended it that way on purpose. The film is about cycles and how people get stuck in them. It’s like the song “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” But with our film the question is “Will the Outlaw Cycle be Unbroken?” There is this concept in America, that anyone can succeed if they wanted to–the whole “you can raise yourself by your bootstraps”–but I think the film is a refutation of that. The world is not fair to poor people. It fucks them over and there are cycles that almost never end once people are trapped in them.
When you grow up a White and constantly hear romanticized stories of criminality or how great it was when your mother stabbed Dennis, you are going to grow up excited to stab someone and get family cred by going to prison. Finding a new moral center is going to be hard, if not impossible. And even if you have a moral center, but a shitty education, the possibilities for improving your life in a region with only one major and very dangerous industry (coal) are still pretty dim. This is something we are scared to admit in America because it goes against the myths we tell ourselves daily in all our Oprah episodes and cheery life lesson TV shows.
What do you predict the younger Whites will be doing 15 years from now?
Two of the kids who are running around at the end smoking (who you mentioned in your previous question) were Mamie’s 12- and 14-year-old grandkids that she is raising. I once asked her what she thinks they would be when they grow up, and without missing a beat she answered: “They’ll be in prison.” That self-created prophecy is part of what the film is about.
The Minnesota Whites seem to be doing okay. There is more opportunity there and they don’t have the family reputation there limiting them, so they seem to be doing better.
Sue Bob has a daughter named Ashley who actually is a straight-A student. We filmed with her one great interview that is in the bonus features, but after that she didn’t want us following her around, so we respected her privacy and as a result she isn’t in the actual film. I feel sure that because she has so much fortitude she’ll accomplish something impressive.
The rest of the kids, it’s hard to say because no one is pushing them to change their lifestyles. They all are very nice people when you deal with them one-on-one. Brandon (who shot Billy in the face) is incredibly sweet. In prison he is off drugs and got mood stabilizers that make him into a completely different person. Most of the trouble is caused by getting fucked up and then riled up. And being bored. It’s an incredibly complicated situation which is impossible to predict. I hope the movie gives you a sense of how complicated it all is.
Have you kept in touch with any of them? How is Kirk’s recovery going? Did she end up getting her daughter back? (Kirk, a twenty-something niece of Jesco, is shown in the film giving birth to a child who is immediately taken away by Child Protective Services; she’s also filmed snorting pills hours after giving birth.)
Storm Taylor, the film’s producer, and I talk to the Whites all the time. I checked in with Bo, Derek and Tylor [Kirk’s son] last week. Bo’s talking about moving out of Boone County. She lives next door to a coal mine and has to clear the coal dust off her stuff every day. It’s crazy. You look out the window and there it is. It’s hard to imagine breathing that all those years.
I talk to Kirk every week or two. Kirk stayed sober for a very long time and got her daughter back. Then, one day, she was stressed out and took a pill that her cousin gave her. She was on parole at the time and felt so guilty that she immediately turned herself in and is now in prison. Her daughter is back in foster care and her mom, Bo, has her son, Tylor. We talk on the phone all the time. In prison, she is about to get her GED and has been writing some pretty amazing poems.
Kirk’s storyline reminds me somewhat of an episode of Intervention. Did you recognize that while filming?
I respect Intervention and have friends who work on it, but never felt like it felt like an episode of Intervention. Intervention simplifies the life of the addict. It always shows addiction as being horrible. The truth is addiction is way more complicated because a lot of time addicts are having a ton of fun. Drugs can be really fun. You are hanging out with crazy people and laughing your ass off. They never show that. But anyone who’s been to an AA meeting knows how much everyone laughs about the crazy dumb fun things everyone there did on the variety of substances they took. We tried to include the fun parts of the addiction to show how complicated it is.
Also, the thing about Kirk’s struggle was there was no intervention. This is kind of the point about the family’s particular family culture. Whereas in most families if a person is doing tons of drugs, there are people to intervene, but with her family, everyone thought the idea of Kirk trying to get sober was dumb and openly discouraged her, telling her it would never work–the very opposite of an intervention. She only got clean based on her own fortitude and determination with no family support. When she got out of rehab, instead of her family being supportive, they kept having what I would call reverse interventions. They kept telling her to do drugs and encouraged her to use tricks that would help her pass her court-ordered pee tests.
All the storylines, (including but not limited to Bertie’s end-of-life, Kirk’s addiction struggles, Brandon Poe’s incarceration and sentencing) are so powerful on their own, it’s hard to believe they really all occurred within one family in one year. When you started filming, were you aware of all these major events going on in the family, or did you stumble onto a banner year in the world of the Whites?
The Whites live at three times the speed of ordinary lives. They have way more drama than most people could handle without going mad. Death, prison, murders are regular and tragic parts of their lives. The year we filmed in had a little more than average for them but not an excessive amount more. There were deaths, births, people leaving and entering prison. But to put that year in perspective, Kirk White, in the previous few years, had seen her father imprisoned for a double murder, her sister die in a tragic high-speed car crash, and one of her brothers imprisoned for a horrible assault and robbery of an old man with one leg. She herself had been in and out of jail on a number of charges and had also been on the lam for a while ’til a bounty hunter caught her. In the previous year, Mousie and Sue Bob had been arrested for some criminal activity. So yes, it was a major year in some ways, and in others quite typical.
What was Hank Williams III’s involvement? He seems to have a lot of respect for this family, calling them the “true rebels of the South,” but he gets a lot of free publicity out of his relationship with Jesco and Mamie. Does he stay in regular contact with the younger generation as well?
Hank III has been a good friend to Jesco and Mamie. I know Mamie stole a bunch of his weed at one point, but he wasn’t mad and treats them as family. I don’t think he does spend a lot of time with the younger generation, but he does live in Tennessee and not in West Virginia.
Have any of the generations below Jesco/Mamie/Bo been taught mountain dancing, or will it die with Jesco?
Little Man (who is one of the Whites who moved to Minnesota) was learning mountain dancing from Jesco’s father, D. Ray, when he died. If you watch the documentary about D. Ray, Talking Feet, Little Man is the cute little blond boy learning to dance. However, after D. Ray’s murder he never had anyone push him to keep it up. While we were filming, he bought some tapes, saying he was going to start again, but then he had a baby and got too busy with work to commit to it. Jesco, I know, would be glad to teach someone if they were interested, but the younger generation aren’t really interested. Nor do they listen to that kind of music.
Towards the end of the film, you address the coal-mining industry and its ramifications on Appalachian society. Some of the Whites’ behaviors are in direct rebellion of that system, yet they say little about it beyond the generic middle fingers and fuck yous. Did you have any serious comments from any of them on how it’s impacted their lives?
They are very conflicted about coal, like a lot of West Virginians. They know the mine owners are crooks but they also know that it is the only source of income in the state. Of course, this is something the coal companies intentionally created. They have no interest in allowing other industries to develop. Right now they control much of the state and have an interest in not having people be offered other job possibilities. We talked to the Whites about mountaintop removal and those sections are in the bonus features. Like everything with the Whites, it’s not what you’d expect.
Under the tattoos and pot smoke and curse words, we do see a family who cares for one another very much, which comes across no matter how badass or crass they want to present themselves. Did you witness any expressly sentimental moments while filming?
Of course. You can see the love just oozing off in the film, especially between Kirk and her son, Tylor. Or when Mamie tries to comfort Kirk. The family fights a lot with each other, but if an outsider fucks with them, they unite. That was one of the things we wanted to show. They may be badass outlaws, but they have this intensely strong sense of family.
The film is raw, especially scenes like Bertie’s birthday party [there’s nudity, in the non-sexy way] or Kirk snorting pills in the hospital after giving birth. Was there anything major like that you left out? Why or why not?
We shot over 400 hours of film, so there was a ton of major stuff we left out. Luckily, some of it is in the bonus features, which I think add a lot of depth to some of the stories.
We had to follow a lot of stories to figure out which would have beginnings, middles and ends. There were a lot of weird, great scenes that just didn’t fit. We also showed longer versions of the film, but most people preferred the tighter film we ended up with.
As far as stuff we left out that was weird (and didn’t end up on the bonus features): Bill Clinton, at one point, came to Boone County during the primaries to campaign for Hillary. Jesco and Mamie went to hear him speak. When they got there, everyone lost interest in Bill Clinton and wanted to get Jesco’s autograph. Then Jesco and Mamie listened to him speak for ten minutes, got bored and left.
Mamie has another son named Wimpy who got out of prison. He is super interesting but was mostly in a halfway house where we couldn’t shoot. There is also some really crazy stuff that we just couldn’t put in cause it was too fucked-up. Maybe in 20 years we can release it, ’cause it is mind-blowing but would fuck up some people’s lives.
Feel free to share anything else, if you like–a funny White or West Virginia story, etc.
There’s always super-funny shit going on with the family. Some people asked if the family “acted up” for the film and I have to tell them that I was with the family just as much with the cameras off and the same crazy stuff would happen all the time. For example, the Whites have a great love of “pantsing.” If you don’t know what pantsing is, it’s the art of sneaking up to someone who is wearing any kind of pants with an elastic waistband and tugging them down. You can see Mamie do it to Les at her mom Bertie Mae’s 84th birthday party. Les is totally nonplussed because this happens daily. In fact, Mamie pantsed him two other times at the party, but we only included the first pantsing. Our crew always made sure to wear pants with strong belts on them after seeing this.
When Bertie Mae got sick, we spent a lot of time at the hospital with the family just sitting around in Bertie Mae’s room or in the waiting room. One night, I went out to get some food. When I came back, everyone was giddy with excitement. While I was gone, Sonny Howell, the mayor, had come to visit someone at the hospital. On his way out, Sue Bob noticed he was wearing exercise shorts with an elastic band. Without hesitation, she ran up and pantsed the mayor. Turns out he was traveling commando, so I was informed “we pantsed him and out popped the Mayor’s pecker!” That’s who they are. They don’t respect authority. Sometimes it’s bad, like when they have shoot-outs with police, but it sure is awesome when they pants the Mayor.