Matewan Film. Written and directed by John Sayles. 1987. 132 minutes. A feature ﬁlm depicting a strike in a mining town in Appalachia and the struggle for solidarity across racial lines.
John Sayles’ feature film about a strike in a mining town in Appalachia. Mine owners bring in black workers in an attempt to break the strike. Can Italian immigrants, white Appalachians, and African Americans work together? Should they even bother to try? A powerful and well-crafted film based on a true story.
“Matewan is about the coal miners in Mingo County, West Virginia, who worked in the coal mine just outside the town of Matewan. A labor organizer (and self-described “red”), Joe Kenehan, arrives in the town just as black and Italian “scabs” are being brought to replace striking coal miners who are fed up with the mining corporation’s manipulation of the per-ton price of coal (At the film’s outset, the price-per-ton is 90 cents.) Eventually, the scabs stop working, too, and join Joe Kenehan’s effort to unionize the miners. White, black and Italian workers overcome their racism and prejudice in order to organize themselves against the powerful mining corporation who has hired thugs from Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. These thugs are sent to quell the coal miners’ unionizing efforts. The most sinister of these corporate-hired thugs, Hickey, evicts impoverished mining families from their homes, bribes and threatens the mayor and the sheriff of Matewan, and creates terrible tension between the miners and those trying to lead the unionization efforts. The worst problems arise when an informant infiltrates the group of miners and the majority of the miners resort to deadly violence against the corporate representatives. The final result is a massacre in which no one emerges unscathed. This film is based on solid historical events in West Virginia coal mining country, and it is a good film for educating both adults and young people about the sacrifices made by American laborers as they fought for unionization and, thereby, for the power of collective bargaining. The film opens with the voice of a narrator, who turns out to be one of the characters, Danny, who is looking back on this time of conflict in Matewan. The main points of view are Danny’s and Joe Kenehan’s. The acting is excellent and the characters are well developed. The movie was written and directed by John Sayles, and he plays a small part as as fanatical evangelical preacher in the community of Matewan.” [Description from IMDB.]
“Matewan tells the story of a bitter 1920 strike in the coal mines of southern West Virginia. The struggle culminates in the Matewan Massacre, a violent (and historically accurate) confrontation in which the town’s mayor, seven armed guards hired by the coal operators, and two miners lost their lives. However, this film does more than chronicle a particularly dramatic episode in American labor history. In the hands of director John Sayles, Matewan offers a meditation on broad philosophical questions rarely confronted in American films: the possibility of interracial cooperation, the merits of violence and nonviolence in combating injustice, and the threat posed by concentrated economic power to American notions of political democracy and social justice.
“Although Matewan is peopled with actual historical figures — notably Sid Hatfield, the town’s pro-union chief of police and the central protagonist in the massacre — Sayles uses two fictional characters to propel the plot. One is Danny Radnor — a boy preacher, miner, and union supporter — in whose voice as narrator, looking back from fifty years later, the story of Matewan is told. The second is the film’s main character, Joe Kenehan, a World War I veteran, former member of the Industrial Workers of the World, organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, and committed pacifist…
“… Through music, regional accents, and numerous local characters, Sayles successfully creates a sense of the Matewan community. Visually, too, the film is remarkably effective, thanks to Haskell Wexler’s careful and deliberate cinematography. Dramatic as it is, Matewan is not “entertaining” in the conventional sense. With its accented dialogue often difficult to follow and its slow-moving pace, it demands concentration on the part of the viewer, but partly because of this, it succeeds admirably in creating a sense of time and place. — Eric Foner [Excerpted from Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies edited by Mark Carnes, pages 204 - 207.] (source: Zinn Project)