The History of “Whites” People

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Julien Nitzberg’s documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia—which premieres on April 21 as part of Tribeca Film’s video-on-demand service—is the story of the Whites, the most badass family in West Virginia. They’re the Hatfields and McCoys all rolled into one, fired up on every pill in the medicine chest. Set in Boone County, not far from the recent Massey coal-mining disaster, the film (executive-produced by Johnny Knoxville) captures a community of struggling miners determined to have a good time. Nitzberg spoke to David Brendel about the family he came to love (and nearly have sex with).

You’ve described driving around with the Whites while they screamed death threats at people from their pickup truck. Was that fun?
Everything is fun with the Whites until it gets yelled at you.

Did you find yourself in other morally complicated positions?
Every day! When you’re filming for a year and a half, it’s an intense relationship; when the cameras are off, you’re eating dinner with them. They’re some of the smartest, funniest people I’ve ever met.

And did they treat you like kin?
You know, Brandon treated his uncle like family by shooting him in the face. So, we didn’t get treated completely like family, but we got pretty close.

Who’s been most offended by the film?
We actually had people screaming at each other at a screening in Memphis. People were outraged that the audience was laughing at certain parts. There’s a certain contingent of the politically correct who want to treat people from Appalachia as victims with no self-awareness who are trapped in a cycle. And they are trapped in a cycle, but they’re aware they’re trapped, and they’re having a lot of fun while they’re trapped.

What do people misunderstand about “redneck” culture?
People don’t realize that the term redneck partially comes from West Virginia. Rednecks were miners who were pro-union, and they would wear a red kerchief around their neck. They were hated by people. Redneck meant troublemaker, as in pro-labor rebels. But over the years, this political vision got stamped out, and so a “redneck” just became a troublemaker.

Did you party with the Whites?
We had a big decision to make when we were offered drugs. Doing them would show you are not judging them. On the other hand, the fear is you’re gonna fuck up your camera work. Once they wouldn’t let me shoot till I snorted a pill with them.

And how many of the Whites hit on you?
Uh, let’s see, four. I got held down by Annie Mae while her cousin Katie gave me a hickey.

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The History of “Whites” People