Matewan opens in the pitch-black darkness of a West Virginia coal mine. A miner lights the carbide lamp on his helmet. The small open flame he wears provides the only flicker of light in this cramped space next to a coal seam. A couple of minutes later, the miner yells out, “Shootin’ coal! Shootin’ coal!” and soon enough, an explosion goes off.
With this version of “Action!” that we see and hear on-screen, John Sayles brings his 1987 movie out of the darkness and starts it with a bang, as if he has simultaneously rolled camera on the scene he is filming and flipped the switch on the projector showing it. Right away, he gives the film over to one of its workers, a gesture from a writer-director more interested in the drama of history than in movie stars. We realize only later that this man is Sephus Purcell (Ken Jenkins), unofficial leader of the native-born Matewan miners.
In Sayles’s book Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie “Matewan,” which was released concurrently with the film and is perhaps the best (or only?) how-to memoir by a director about a single one of his works, he mentions that the miners’ carbide headlamps, though difficult to photograph, were important to the film; they had often provided the only light in the actual West Virginia mines where he and his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, were shooting—just “a few foot-candles’ worth of illumination.” That was all the light the miners had had during the long hours of grueling labor in the tight, low spaces of the coal seams. Wexler created a palette for the film that emphasizes diffused blacks, browns, and gray-blues. He and Sayles eliminated primary colors to better convey the feeling of lives “spent crawling in coal” in work clothes that had been through “a thousand washings in harsh lye soap,” as Sayles writes.
The Battle of Matewan, also known as the Matewan Massacre, took place in 1920, in “Bloody” Mingo County, West Virginia, home of the Hatfield family, who had feuded with the McCoys in the previous century. Sid Hatfield was the chief of police in Matewan at the time of the massacre, the rare lawman who refused to be bought off by the coal companies. He sided with the miners, many of whom had recently joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), against the “gun thugs” of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, brought in by the Stone Mountain Coal Company to break the union by threatening or murdering its members and harassing their families, as well as to ensure at gunpoint that scab labor brought in from out-of-state black and Italian communities would work longer hours for less money than the striking miners.
By 1987, Sayles had made four films, one of which, The Brother from Another Planet (1984), had been started, finished, and released during the lengthy process of trying to produce Matewan. Used to working on low-budget, independent films, Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi eventually raised nearly $4 million to make Matewan. They filmed in Thurmond, West Virginia, over a seven-week period in autumn 1986. Sayles’s early movies look prescient two decades into the twenty-first century. Return of the Secaucus 7 (1979), a comedy-drama, deals with baby boomer friends who remain true to their youthful ideals but must face the failure of their generation to change the world. Lianna (1983) is an explicitly feminist film, a drama in which a woman who has married her college professor leaves him for another woman, also a professor. The socioeconomic gap between these lovers ultimately separates them, as it does Rosanna Arquette’s college girl and her working-class boyfriend (Vincent Spano) in Baby It’s You, also released in 1983.
Almost unique among movies from the first half of the eighties, The Brother from Another Planet deals with immigration, racism, and slavery. In it, we experience Reagan-era social reality through the eyes of the mute main character (Joe Morton), who appears to be an ordinary black man but is really an alien from outer space. His pursuit by “men in black” (played by David Strathairn and the director himself) is a reminder that Sayles’s working-class dramas influenced Hollywood and were repurposed in unexpected ways. Secaucus 7, with its ensemble cast gathered for a weekend, bears a resemblance to The Big Chill, made four years later, just as Brother now can’t help but remind viewers of the Men in Black franchise that began in 1997.
“No other writer-director who began making his own films post–Star Wars has managed to achieve as much while staying as true to his ideals.”
“Matewan has the structure of a western. But, Sayles is careful to point out, ‘the purpose of the story is not nostalgia.’ ”
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