It's about time somebody made a documentary about the so-called "Real America" ever since Sarah Palin consecrated it as the foundation of her failed vice-presidential bid. Naturally, the "lamestream media" has left it to Mrs. Palin define this nation within nation. Like all things Palin, it's an evolving and contradictory process, the latest of which is in Christmas-cracker joke form: "you're a redneck if you've ever had dinner on a ping pong table," she told a crowd of NRA-ers. These one-liners are surely written by others, but she can claim some personal experience. Her would-be son-in-law and unlikely antagonist of The Palins soap opera, Levi Johnston, who once proudly declared " I'm a f---in' redneck" before he sold-out and became a PlayGirl pinup and Kathy Griffin-approved gay icon.
Palin's grip of the "Real America" has been rightfully challenged by director Julien Nitzberg and producer Johnny Knoxville in their just-released documentary, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. Their almost anthropological study of redneck culture is done through a portrait of it at its most extreme, crystallized into the form of the White family, local celebrities of Boone County, WV, and descendants of D. Ray White, a murdered tap-dancer who was commemorated in the cult PBS documentary Talking Feet.
The first scenes suggest a comedy, a where-are-they-now reality show starring former guests of Jerry Springer. Sitting on couches and wondered over by lap-dogs, the Whites rank their favorite drugs, over shake their prescription bottles in front of the camera and take a toke of a joint. Grandma has a birthday party where gramps gets pantsied as the cake and candles are presented. One boasts of violent brawls with ex-lovers where mom hid the weapon and cleaned up the blood.
But, by now the tone has shifted to something more serious. It feels less of a Jersey Shore gross-out and more akin to the second season of The Wire, a moving and ultimately ambivalent portrait of working class whites whose culture and community is rooted in an economic reality that has long since expired.
The ambivalence is manifold. Pain is inflicted sharply in every direction: sisters have died in car collisions, children with gun accidents. We see a baby taken out of the arms of her mother, perhaps never to return, as she turns around snorts a line of something or other still in the hospital bed. She enters rehab and stays clean for a while, how long for we don't know yet. The youngest children can't get work because their parents have ruined their reputation, their last name is the ultimate stigma. It is also deserved, they openly boast about robbing and stealing, bullying and even stabbing. Some have moved away and begun to rebuild, but most have stayed tightly together. The townsfolk revile them as a pest, but also encourage them to take on roles as the local source of amusement and intrigue, egging-on bad behavior and eccentric tap-dancing for an evenings entertainment.
At first the world of the Whites seems something far away, foreign, so much so that much of the dialogue comes with subtitles. Yet, when one takes a step backs from the alien aesthetics, another story emerges that sits firmly within a tradition of independent films such as Happiness, Magnolia, and American Beauty. These latter films take on intimate family lives of affluent whites in ordered suburbs but reveal the same pathologies of dysfunction, addiction and abuse. If anything, the Whites are simply honest and upfront about whom they are, whereas the suburban America is camera shy, relying upon Alan Ball, Paul Anderson, and Todd Solondz as their interlocutors.
It may well be true that there are two (and more) Americas, that different communities have been dealt different cards. Yet, although one family may be sitting at a ping-pong table and the other at a polished oak dinning table, Nitzberg shows us that common nexus of neurosis underlies the emotional space the group around that table share. My hope is that people watch this film and pose questions that go beyond red states and blue states, outlaws and conformists, and instead address common, if unattractive, behaviors that make all of America a real, and not imaginary, America.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is available for download at Amazon.com and opens in selected theaters on June 25.