Thursday, December 30, 2010
It has been years since I saw the 1991 cult documentary Dancing Outlaw, a film that sparked a great deal of interest in the American South, paving the way for films like Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus and Seven Signs down the line. The trials and tribulations of Jesco White are fascinating, although ultimately the film paints a picture of an oft-forgotten America that is stuck in a holding pattern of poverty, violence, and substance abuse.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia picks up with the entire White clan approximately 17-18 years following the release of Dancing Outlaw. While Jesco White remains a cult hero of sorts to fans of the original movie, what hasn't changed is the culture in which he lives. In fact, this movie is a sobering and stark depiction of the effects of deep seated poverty in rural America.
In short, the movie breaks down the White family tree, detailing the lives of Jesco's siblings, nieces & nephews, cousins, and even his mother. What you find is a family history addled by the effects of addiction. Pharmaceutical abuse is a major undercurrent throughout the film, and its effects upon the family have been devastating. Prison time, deaths, and violence are commonplace in the family, to the point that many of the family members seem to known nothing other than such events. Of the entire clan, Poney White, who moved his family out of West Virginia entirely, is the only one who is shown to have achieved any level of stability.
Jesco White, sadly, is but a shell of a drug abused body, noting himself that years of gasoline huffing have left his cognitive abilities very limited. The gregarious mountain dancer who has been the hero of hipsters and frat boys alike over the past two decades has seen few, if any, benefits of his famed status. He is a tragic figure who in his 54 years of life has become a poster child for the exploitation of the impoverished. Those who have profited off of his personality have the distinct benefit of being able to leave when they are finished filming, yet Jesco and his family remain trapped in a neverending cycle of problems. White continues to live in rural West Virginia, where he is likely to live out the remainder of his life. Even if he or his family could see profits from their fame, the poverty cycle is too deeply ingrained for money to have beneficial effects, as it almost certainly goes right back out the door in the purchase of various drugs.
It's certainly your prerogative to take what you wish out of this film, but the sad truth is that this intriguing sideshow is in fact a portrait of real people. The Whites are representative of a sizeable segment of American society, and serve as a reminder to us all that no matter how great the opportunities many of us have, a substantial portion of the country is never exposed to education or the benefits provided by modern society. Sadly, it's not as though these people are so isolated that they can live "off the grid," as their rural lifestyle has been greatly affected by the availability of black market pharmaceuticals while programs to help them deal with the resulting large scale addiction are virtually non-existent, or at-best, ineffective and underfunded. The White family is concurrently hard to watch and hard not to watch, and while I think the film is a realistic depiction of them and a valuable reminder of the effects of poverty, it also remains an unsettling portrait of those who have fallen through the cracks in our country.