Julien Nitzberg, associate producer of the cult documentary Dancing Outlaw, which stars the notorious Appalachian mountain dancer Jesco White, has set himself up for the same criticism that often gets leveled at fiction filmmakers like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. When directors show politically incorrect behavior without passing judgment on that behavior, it rubs many folks the wrong way, leading to charges of misogyny in von Trier’s case or nihilism in Haneke’s. Nitzberg’s latest film, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, has and will most certainly be judged exploitative for its celebratory portrayal of Jesco and his kin: poor, white, violent West Virginian drug dealers who have no qualms about snorting pills for the camera at their octogenarian matriarch’s birthday party. But underlying the reality-TV hi-jinks is a true respect for the subjects. Nitzberg seems almost in awe of the Whites’ ability to buck the system so thoroughly and blatantly. The Whites indeed have created their own lawless world where the primal, bibilical eye-for-an-eye rule trumps all. One can’t help but think Werner Herzog would be tickled pink by both the doc and the rebel director behind its lens.
What possessed you to want to make a film about the Whites and how did the production eventually come together?
I met Mamie White back in 1989 when 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 Hasil’s concert 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 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. This footage became the basis of Dancing Outlaw, the PBS documentary that made Jesco into a cult icon.
So, 20 years later I get a call telling me that Johnny Knoxville was a fan of my documentaries and wanted to meet me. At this point, I’d stopped making documentaries and was working in Hollywood writing scripts for HBO and had just written and directed an operetta called The Beastly Bombing or a Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by the Tangles of True Love, about a group of white supremacists who come to New York to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and meet a group of Al Qaeda terrorists who have arrived at the same time with the same plan. They eventually bond musically with songs about how much they both hate Jews.
Anyway, Knoxville and I met and became friends, bonding over a mutual love of David Allan Coe’s X-rated country albums. He started coming to see Beastly Bombing every week and we started talking about doing a project together. I showed him my early Jesco footage one day and then the next thing I know he had the idea that I had to go back to West Virginia.
I like that you delved a bit into the coal-mining culture the Whites are a product of. It brought to my mind the parallels between hillbillies and gangstas. There’s really very little difference between the mentality that births Appalachian artistry and that of ghetto rappers. Both demographics don’t expect to survive that long or to lead enriching lives so they’re steeped in a “live for today” kind of ethos. What’s your take on all this?
When people are trapped in poverty and see no possibility of improving their situation, they too often react in the same way. These are people with no options at all but who have taken this lack of hope and stood up to it in the only way they saw as possible—creating a badass outlaw persona that thrives on romanticized self-destructive behavior. They want to have their lives noticed and acknowledged and getting into a lot of trouble is the only way to do that. They don’t see the world as fair in any way or buy into the American dream. They see coal companies like Massey Energy killing people in preventable mine disasters and never getting punished because Don Blankenship, the head of Massey, finances political campaigns in return for laws and court rulings that favor his company. This blatant corruption of the law fuels the outlaw culture in the region, justifying many others in the community to feel that they need to find ways to also exploit the system in their own small ways. The Whites, as masters of this, end up being celebrated in West Virginia by some like other outlaws before them (Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, etc.) who rebelled against corporate and state crimes by leading lives of crime themselves. Gangsta culture is just the urban version of outlaw culture.
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.