Posts Tagged ‘Documentaries’

Very little wild, hell of a lot less wonderful

August 17, 2010 4 comments

So I’ve been kicking around a documentary idea. I’d like to find an African-American family in the inner city, a couple of generations living close to one another, with a dubious reputation. It’d be best if a couple of them are crackheads, and the rest can just be alcoholics. Maybe the patriarch can have some marginal talent, like being a third-rate rapper, but because he’s basically bat-shit crazy he’s disproportionally famous within a tight little group.

And I’d like to make it a comedy. Really yuck it up when they get arrested, they get high, they throw yet another self-constructed monkey wrench into their lives, they get into whatever sort of mayhem or trouble they get into. Sure, it SEEMS like it would be tragic, and I’ll toss in a moment or two of poignancy, maybe even some regret, but ultimately it’s just going to be funny. Why? Because it’s not us. See, we can laugh at them because secretly we know we’re better than them. We have jobs and college degrees and they’re nothing but trash, so we can laugh at them.

Wait? I can’t make a movie like this? Why? Oh, it’d be racist?

So then will someone explain to me why in the HELL making something like “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” is OK? Why do we seem so insistant on continuing to make Jesco White and his ragged band of ne’er-do-wells new levels of family?

Because as The Bride has pointed out to me, it’s never about race; truly it’s about class. The Whites are no different, sadly, than any number of families of any race all across America. They are mired in institutionalized poverty, stuck at the end of dead-end existances where little light shines, and they opt to drown themselves in a stew of pharmaceuticals and try to ignore the hopelessness that both fate and individual choices has created for them.

Ebert said back in his review of “Far and Away” that the Irish are the last socially-acceptable minority to stereotype; we can officially add Appalachians to the list. Replace the Whites with an African-American family living in Bedford Stuy, but keep in all of the Whites’ actions. Show them to be addicts and users and abusers and partiers and then tell us we’re expected to laugh at all of this and picture the uproar that would roll across the nation. There’d be discussions on CNN and NPR about the roll of race in America. But because the Whites are poor white trash in southern West Virginia, it’s OK to laugh at their shenanigans and try to remember to get the DVD back to Redbox before you get charged an extra night’s rental.

Our culture continues its gradual decline to a gutteral existance every time we give the Whites and their ilk another 15 seconds of fame. Why aren’t we having discussions about ending the cyle of poverty in Appalachia? Why isn’t there any discussion about Appalachian culture, the legacy of coal mining, or even the hard-scrabble struggle for Appalachians to make livings in a state where all of the wealth (i.e. coal and natural gas) are owned by out-of-state companies? Because no one involved at any point in this misbegotten pile of excrement cares about anything other than giggles and guffaws.

Hell, why are we talking about our apparent need to make celebrities out of people who have neither the need to be famous nor the capacity to handle it? What differentiates the Whites from the fame whores from “Jersey Shore” and practically every show on E? Damn little, except the Whites aren’t playing for the camera. They’re not some custom-built reality show situation, a dozen pretty faces playing make believe for the cameras. They are a genuinely troubled family who will just keep on destroying their lives and hurting those around them long after we’ve stopped laughing at them.

Particularly galling is the fact that other West Virginians helped perpetrate this thing. As a culture Appalachians aren’t much on “outsiders” (i.e. anyone not from their holler), so the producers found film students willing to take a few pieces of silver and further condemn not just the Whites but the rest of West Virginia into the already-deep well of stereotypes. No, let’s not show anyone successful or intelligent from West Virginia; we’re just here for the bottom feeders. Laugh it up, Los Angeles!

I don’t know the Whites. I’ve never met any of them, and I don’t have a desire to meet them either. I don’t feel sorry for them, either; even if I did, I don’t think they’d care. Truth be told, I don’t think much about them at all in any way. They are individuals who have made their choices and are living the lives based from them. That’s great for them. None of that means we need to watch it for 90 minutes. We don’t have to glorify the Whites. We don’t have to pity them or villify them or ANYTHING them. We can let them keep on living the lives they chose and keeping Boone County law enforcement employed in perpetuity. We can be better than the society that says it’s OK to laugh at the misfortune of others regardless of race, class or creed. We can show that we don’t have to meet the lowered expectations of others. We can scream “WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS!” by not this or any other piece of crap more than happy to exploit the real-life suffering of others. Think anyone’s ever going to make a “funny” documentary about 9/11 widows? Haitian refugees? Eastern European ethnic cleansing? Not likely.

I’d like to think the people involved in this thing are ashamed of themselves but I doubt shame is anything they care much about. They should, though. They should.