White Lightnin’: violence drugs and Appalachian dancing

White Lightnin’, about ‘dancing outlaw’ Jesco White, is a moving film. If only it didn’t romanticise mental illness.

David Berkley

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Films that portray the American working class with sensitivity, or even just fairly, are lamentably few and far between.

All too often those less well-off members of society who reside somewhere in the vastness between the oceans Atlantic and Pacific are represented merely as dysfunctional, uncomplicated yokels and hillbillies, nothing more than objects of derision for the movie-going middle classes. For the Hollywood mainstream, it can sometimes seem as if the 3,000 miles between LA and NYC are non-existent. It is strange to think how such a vast area can be written out of cinema and popular culture in such a blasé fashion.

Strange also that it has taken an English actor to break the mould and finally depict a member of this forgotten tribe with any depth, complexity or sincerity, as Ed Hogg does in White Lightnin’. This is the affecting and beautifully-crafted semi-fictionalised biopic of Jesco White, ‘The Dancing Outlaw’ – a legendary practitioner of the dying (now virtually dead) art of Appalachian Mountain dancing. And stranger still that it has taken writer and co-producer Shane Smith, better known as the founder of Vice magazine, to instigate a film that sheds light on the neglected ‘white trash’ culture. Vice, purveyor-in-chief of the smug irony that currently riddles fashionable indie culture, would seem to be a million light years from anything as authentic and humanity-driven as White Lightnin’.

Jesco’s dramatic life of dancing and drug abuse has won him a cult following over the years, which grew further after a documentary about his troubled life, The Dancing Outlaw, was shown on American TV in 1991. Drugs, dancing, violence, run-ins with the law, and religion make up the majority of White Lightnin’, which documents Jesco’s life from birth to fictionalised death (the real Jesco is, remarkably, still alive). The film focuses heavily on his turbulent relationship with his thrice-married and twice-divorced wife Norma Jean, here renamed Priscilla (in honour of the wife of Jesco’s hero Elvis Presley), and played by a now middle-aged Carrie Fisher, whose Princess Leia days are long behind her.

Born into a tiny, dirt-poor rural community in the midst of the Appalachian mountains, Jesco had the obscure art of mountain dancing – half tap, half clog dancing – running through his blood, with his father D Ray White considered by many to be greatest ever mountain dancer. Unfortunately, as White Lightnin’ notes, Jesco also has the devil running through his blood, alluding to the tendency towards self-destruction which has plagued his life. Perhaps partly stemming from a lifelong drug addiction – we see a childhood version of Jesco ‘huffin’ petrol fumes – or perhaps from a deeper mental imbalance, Jesco, like Sid Vicious, combines an impressive predisposition to implode with an affecting and tender childlike sensitivity.

Such characters are endlessly fascinating, but what is even more fascinating is our fascination with them. Partly out of curiosity, partly for amusement, but mostly out of a morbid voyeurism to watch them crash and burn, we find it irresistible to track the latest outrageous mishaps in their tragic lives. This, of course, is intensified with our tabloid ‘sleb-watching culture, which is more prevalent today than ever. Jesco is in many ways the Pete Doherty or Amy Winehouse of his generation – talented, yes, but this was never the reason for the public’s interest in his life. Perhaps Pete Doherty will one day also be exalted as a martyr in a feature-length film.

Despite White Lightnin’s many assets (not least Ed Hogg’s performance) and its worth from a story-telling point of view, there is also something fundamentally troubling about it. The danger is that such films portray mental illness and drug addiction in a way that can distort the reality of the situation. This isn’t the old illogical Daily Mail argument of filmic depictions of drug use glamorising the subject matter – Trainspotting did more to put me off heroin than any government anti-drugs campaign ever could. And an ambivalent, non-judgmental attitude towards its protagonists’ many misdeeds is not White Lightnin’s problem, but an advantage; films always work best when they leave us, the audience, to judge the character for ourselves.

But Dominic Murphy’s film, beautifully shot in a sepia-tinged black and white, does run the risk of not glamorising or glorifying, but romanticising mental illness and drug abuse. Whilst it is true that some great artists do suffer from these afflictions (perhaps Kurt Cobain would be a more pertinent example here), such suffering is neither a guarantee of, nor a shortcut to, artistic prowess. Artistic genius is no different to any other kind of genius – Edison’s famous equation of one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration still applies – and can not be so easily bought.

David Berkley is a former intern at spiked.

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