With his fifth feature, the coal-mining saga Matewan, independent filmmaker John Sayles gathered an impressive group of collaborators—among them cinematographer Haskell Wexler and actors James Earl Jones, Chris Cooper, and Will Oldham—to make a drama on a subject that had long interested him: American labor history. A wrenching account of a real-life coal miners’ strike in 1920 West Virginia, and the violence that followed in its wake, the film offers a powerful tribute to those on the front lines of the twentieth-century fight for the right to organize.
Among the supplements on our new edition of Matewan are two short documentaries on the film’s journey to the screen, one of which is excerpted here. In the above video, Sayles talks about his own experience with unions, as a member of professional guilds for editors, directors, writers, actors—and, formerly, meatpackers. And Sayles’s longtime producing partner, Maggie Renzi, traces the origins of Matewan all the way back to the extensive research on coal mining that the writer-director had done for his 1977 novel Union Dues, which he had published before embarking on his career behind the camera.