Dump the bosses off your back.

I found myself compelled to write about Matewan in spite of having few free hours to work on writing for this site. With the site just recently launched, I feel like it is in my best interest to focus on recently-released or otherwise buzzy films to maximize page-views. This is why I end up watching The Wrong Missy (which I kind of loved against expectation) and The Old Guard (which is fine within the context of there’s nothing else releasing of note in 2020) while a pile of blu rays sit on my shelf in their cellophane.

Further, Matewan is not currently streaming for subscribers to Netflix or Amazon Prime, so who am I helping by touting it? But the big appeal to running my own site, choosing my topics, setting my deadlines, and making my own banner art is that I can throw all of that shit out the window on a whim. Because, to be quite frank, Matewan is almost certainly the best film that I’ve watched, rewatched, or will watch in 2020.

At a time when the working class desperately needs unions, the corporations and politicians have poisoned the very idea of unions. West Virginia, my home state, saw a few decades of prosperity because of the UWMA and other labor organizations. Ask a random hill person now what they think about unions, though, and you’ll get some hogwash about how the unions make it too expensive for the owners to operate; regulations make it too expensive for the owners to operate; solar power is taking away the jobs. People breaking their bodies for $12 an hour think that the union is why they are underpaid. It’s not the billionaire to blame, it’s all of these darn safety regulations. 

The movie addresses this issue and a lot of other labor issues, and it says it elegantly and many times without words (the words, when they come, are quite elegant, though). The difficulty of uniting disparate workers is on display from the earliest scenes, such as when the would-be unionists beat up a railcar full of Black workers brought in by the company to work when and where the local miners won’t (the company hired them as scabs). These two groups, plus Italian immigrants, find common cause despite these tensions. Their alliance is brought about in part by the influence of union rep Kenehan (Chris Cooper in his film debut, and my god, quite a debut) and by the actions of the coal company in hassling workers and manipulating prices. James Earl Jones, as Few Clothes, the de facto leader of the Black workers, is incredible in every scene he’s in, but most especially when he shows up at the union’s secret meeting to make it clear that he and the other recent arrivals want to be part of the union. “You watch your mouth, peckerwood. I’ve been called ******, because I can’t control how White folks is, but I ain’t never been called no scab.”

The rest of the players involved in the story are widows like Mary McDonnell’s Elma Radnor and Nancy Mette as Bridey Mae, the sheriff Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn), the families of the miners, and some Baldwin company goons (Kevin Tighe and Gordon Claap), who are next-level menacing.

I think that I’ve just been on a fatty diet of superhero nonsense and action movies for too long, because the powerlessness that the locals feel hangs so heavy over the film. Why? Because no metahuman or international assassin is coming down that rail line to rescue them. The choice is between taking scraps from the coal company and joining the union at risk of their lives. When one of the miners is caught stealing coal, the scene plays out slowly and with growing horror. We watch Danny the teenaged preacher (Will Oldham) as he hides, powerless to stop the violence. The miners have one strength, and it is in their numbers. 

The movie feels especially timely when we have daily protests against police brutality that are broken up via police brutality, and certain spray-tanned members of our federal government seek to steer the discourse away from the actual topic by directing attention toward canards like antifa or “erasing history.” The recent deployment of border patrol troopers to illegally detain citizens in Portland is like the coal company’s behavior of the early 20th century… except now we are fortunate to have cell phones to document governmental overreach. What happens in the hills of Matewan in 1920 doesn’t travel far.

The movie, deftly directed and written by John Sayles, has moments of life and levity that are a counterpart to the fear: some local hunters show up to stop the goons’ raid on the mining camp; there’s a game of baseball; the various musicians stop playing in different parts of the camp and make music together; an unexpected friendship develops between the Italian mother Rosaria and Hillard Elkins’ mother. The men go into the mines and break their bodies for 9 cents a ton on coal, which they are paid in company store scrip (using tools that they can’t own, but can only rent from the company store), and the women work the fields and and raise the kids and keep order in houses owned by the company, but life has to go on even as more goons with guns come into town.

An especially nice touch for myself (and maybe for other WV expatriates) is the use of an actual coal town in WV as the filming location. I’ve seen Wrong Turn and The X-Files, both set at times in WV and clearly filmed in Canada. Matewan looks like what I know from my childhood. Hillard’s mother gives ramps to Rosaria and says “these are ramps. They’ll put some flavor in your stew.” The main street of Matewan in 1920 doesn’t look that much different from the main street in Terra Alta, WV in 2020. It is still hills and hollers and roads cut out of the rock. And I knew the New River Gorge, during one long shot from way up a hill, without needing to see the Wikipedia page to confirm. WV is always home, even now after living longer out of the state than I did in it.

There are some moments from the film that I remember from childhood, such as Radnor getting some catharsis with her shotgun and James Earl Jones chopping down a tree (he’s built like my grandfather, who worked in timber all his life). However, I’d forgotten the very end of the film, and damnation, it wrecked me good. I was caught up in the events and lost track of a main character. I won’t spoil it here, but it took a couple of hours after the film ended before I was ready to do anything other than dwell on the movie.

So anyway, yeah, a 1,000 times over do I recommend Matewan. Buy the Criterion like I did, or find some service to rent it. The labor movement in the United States had its zenith in the 20th century, resulting in those prosperous times all of the boomers want things to go back to. However, people are myopic, and it is convenient to ignore that protests and bloodshed in the early 20th century were what got us those things like a middle class, a WEEKEND, a 40-hour workweek, holidays, healthcare, a pension, or a minimum wage. Support your unions and don’t let generations of protesters die for nothing: corporations right now cut wages while hiding money in tax shelters, and a coal company willfully ignored safety standards resulting in 29 miners dying in the Upper Big Branch disaster just ten years ago.

Leaving out the politics (which is a dumb thing to say about anything, but especially about Matewan), this movie is still masterfully constructed, has an incredible cast, a haunting soundtrack, real WV locations, and went from being a hazy memory as recently as a day ago to being in my top 25 today.