Matewan: All We Got in Common

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.”

Sayles’s earlier films had had some success, but when he, Renzi, and coproducer Peggy Rajski began work on Matewan, the feature-film landscape did not favor what the director calls in his book a “semi-epic period piece” in which “the story was political, the hero a socialist, the ending not upbeat, and there was no room . . . for a rock soundtrack.” The distributor Cinecom kicked in a big percentage of the budget to get the film made, and ultimately it was Matewan that established Sayles as a writer-director of leftist Americana and working-class crime drama (though one who has also made the occasional foray abroad, setting films in Ireland, Mexico, and the Philippines). 

Sayles followed Matewan with Eight Men Out (1988), a baseball drama starring John Cusack, about the 1919 Black Sox scandal and the unfair labor practices in the major leagues at the end of the dead-ball era. Since then, Sayles, nearly always with Renzi producing (she has done so on fourteen of his eighteen total features), has made a dozen more movies, each one furthering their commitment to political filmmaking in narrative features. His career is unique in American cinema. 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.  

Sheriff Hatfield—whom Strathairn, in his third Sayles film, plays with an inscrutable agenda—is not the hero of Matewan. It has two: Chris Cooper’s Joe Kenehan, an outside agitator and pacifist sent in by the UMWA, and Will Oldham’s teenage preacher-miner, Danny. They are the film’s twin conscience and heart. Danny narrates the film as an old man, a survivor of the massacre. J. K. “Kent” Lilly, a Mercer County, West Virginia, native, provides Danny’s present-day voice in the real accent of the mines and hollers. This triple focus in Matewan, in which Danny looks back at his younger self while that self watches Joe organize the miners and oppose the company, allows Sayles to build a kind of quiet, unshowy heroism into the film’s structure. Matewan is the story of Danny’s radicalization as it emerges not just from the violence around him but also from his first exposure to ideas from outside his small community.   

Cooper was making his film debut at age thirty-five and has the thin face of a silent-movie star here; it is clear why he has become a Sayles regular. He plays Joe, a former Wobbly and an ex-con, with quiet dignity and friendly stoicism. Oldham, sixteen at the time and a native of nearby Louisville, Kentucky, had appeared in one other movie but had not yet recorded any of the music he would become known for. His surprising authenticity in Matewan is feral but thoughtful, grounded in the Bible stories his character knows so well. Danny must come to the decision to reject the “hardshell” antiunion, antisocialist dogma of the preacher he has grown up admiring (played by Sayles, looking like a twisted Gregory Peck, as a mean-spirited shouter) so that he can reconcile the principles of the union with his Christian beliefs. We can see in Oldham’s eyes the change taking place in his character when the beefy, red-faced Hickey (Kevin Tighe), the main Baldwin-Felts thug, insults him at the dinner table in the boardinghouse run by his mother, Elma (Mary McDonnell), a young widow. Hickey calls Danny dumb and describes Matewan as a “shithole,” then pulls a gun on him because he won’t pass the peas. When the boy goes to live in the camp with Joe and the striking miners, he realizes he “ain’t never seen everybody all together like this” before, and his conversion is complete. 

Sayles deliberately rejects the kinds of hillbilly portrayals of Appalachians commonly found in American movies, from Sergeant York (1941) to Deliverance (1972). Each character in Matewan gets a moment to show his or her reasons, including Bridey Mae (Nancy Mette). Hickey calls her “that tramp who meets the passenger train,” and C. E. Lively (Bob Gunton) coerces her into lying about Kenehan in order to discredit him. Sayles, however, has already allowed her to tell her own story, near the beginning of the film. Elma, for her part, sees that Kenehan is not telling the truth about himself at first but seals their friendship with a bloody handshake, a portent of the film’s ending and the first in a series of sage, silent decisions she will make about people.  

Joe, Danny, Bridey Mae, and Elma are Sayles inventions, but James Earl Jones’s Few Clothes and Gunton’s Lively, like Strathairn’s Sid Hatfield, are not. Few Clothes fought in the Spanish-American War beside Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. As a spokesman for the black miners, he agrees to join the union, which leads to his being enlisted to commit murder. That’s because among the union men there is a traitor and spy working for the coal company. The real-life Lively, posing as a fired miner, owned a restaurant in Matewan where the union men held meetings. The film’s plot turns on Gunton’s portrayal of this snake in the grass, who smears Kenehan and does not shy away from torture and cold-blooded killing. Lively died in West Virginia in 1962 at age seventy-five. He exited this world unpunished and presumably untroubled, unlike villains in movies.

Matewan has the structure of a western. But, Sayles is careful to point out, ‘the purpose of the story is not nostalgia.’ ”

Matewan brings to life an important moment of solidarity in labor history. The Appalachian miners learn to get along with the black and Italian men and their families who have been relocated to Mingo County by the coal companies, all to the tune of the Italian labor anthem “Avanti popolo.” Music provides a link among these groups, with Sayles showing how bluegrass, the blues, and bel canto can blend. He and composer Mason Daring give Hazel Dickens, who also appears in the movie as a townswoman, songs to sing in the haunting and expressive high lonesome of the hills, a cappella on the soundtrack and on-screen during Matewan’s inevitable funeral scene.  

The miners’ union was broken by 1921, after President Warren G. Harding put the entire state of West Virginia under martial law and sent the army to the coalfields to defend the companies against their employees. By then, hundreds of miners had been killed, thousands arrested and jailed. It was not until 1935, under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, that union organizing was legally protected in the United States. Matewan came out on August 28, 1987, at the high-water mark of Ronald Reagan’s America, six years after Reagan fired more than eleven thousand air-traffic controllers for not ending a strike, and on a weekend between the premieres of Dirty Dancing and Fatal Attraction. Most of the thousands of coal jobs that would disappear over the course of Reagan’s two terms were already gone. That year in American movies was defined somewhere between Moonstruck and Lethal Weapon, with a swampy hint of Predator mixed in. Nostalgia was sweet, as in Dirty Dancing, or hyperstylized and big-budgeted, as in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. There was just as much a need then for Matewan—a film that presents real conflicts in American history, without a happy ending—as there is today. 

When Sayles shot the movie in Thurmond (after deciding that the actual town of Matewan had become too modern), the population was “around sixty or seventy people,” as he writes. In 1920, the population had been 285. Today, just five people live there. Similarly, in 1920 there were 850 people in Matewan itself; now there are fewer than 450, although the town still has the vibrancy to establish and maintain, along with UMWA Local 1440, the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, dedicated to preserving the history that was once buried. Even with such exceptions, towns like these are among the so-called sacrifice zones in the U.S., places where heavy industry has permanently ruined the environment, lowered life expectancy, increased poverty and drug abuse, and led to depopulation. When strip-mining and mountaintop removal replaced digging and blasting as the primary way coal is extracted from rock, coal companies eliminated jobs. The UMWA, strong through the early sixties, has seen a steady decline from its height of about half a million members.

In their 2012 book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, journalist Chris Hedges and artist Joe Sacco investigate the current situation in the coal-mining counties of Appalachia, focusing in particular on Welch, West Virginia, which is where Baldwin-Felts operatives assassinated Sid Hatfield in August 1921. There were a hundred thousand people living in McDowell County, of which Welch is the seat, in the middle of the twentieth century. Now there are fewer than twenty thousand. In the counties they visited, Hedges and Sacco found towns covered in coal dust, unbreathable air, and contaminated water. Mountaintop removal has eliminated plant and animal life in parts of West Virginia, erasing eons of geological and natural history that will never return, even if beautiful woodlands and teeming wildlife remain in other abandoned hills and hollers in the state (which Renzi and Sayles still love to visit). But the coal companies, as the authors note, have erased labor history, too, by carting away the very soil on which union men clashed with capitalist thugs, and won. 

Matewan, as Sayles writes, has the structure of a western. It’s not that different in its way from High Noon or The Wild Bunch or any other movie where gunmen threaten a town. But, Sayles is careful to point out, “the purpose of the story is not nostalgia.” Two moments in particular encapsulate what that purpose is, illustrating the film’s continued relevance. “There ain’t but two sides to this world: them that work and them that don’t,” Joe explains, in a scene in Lively’s restaurant in which he has to prove himself to the miners. Instead of urging them to violence, he insists on solidarity across racial and ethnic lines. Later, when the striking miners are building their camp, Danny, in Lilly’s voice-over, recalls how Joe explained to them, “All we got in common is our misery, and the least we can do is share it.”

From Harding to Reagan and now to Donald Trump, the leaders of this country have lied to coal miners, used them up, riddled their landscape with bullets, and flooded it with slurry and ash. At one of his non-election-year rallies, in West Virginia in 2018, Trump told coal miners he was putting them back to work. “Great people,” he called them. “Brave people. I don’t know how the hell you do that, I’ll tell ya. You guys have a lot of courage. But we love clean, beautiful West Virginia coal.” He told them that wind energy, pipelines, and solar panels are fragile and hard to fix, and concluded by asking and answering his own question. “You know what you can’t hurt? Coal,” he said in front of a sign that read “Trump Digs Coal.”  

Pun aside, Trump does not actually dig any coal—he is one of them that don’t work. He loves coal miners for the same reason the bosses at the Stone Mountain Coal Company did in 1920: for their capacity to be hurt, again and again. The opportunity to inflict unlimited pain and damage on workers and on the land, it goes without saying, requires the absence of unions. Matewan is one of the few movies produced in the U.S. to make the need for them its subject. The gun-toting, nonminer hillbillies who stealthily materialize out of the woods in the film know that the coal companies stole their land. We, however, have to be shown. For the past four decades, a new John Sayles film has emerged every two years or so to show us the lives and struggles official histories and other movies ignore. From New Jersey and West Virginia to Florida and Texas, Sayles has made films all over the country. Every place in America has a Matewan.