Limited Capacity: 4 spots available
Matewan –– US John Sayles 1987 2 hr 13 min 3/11/20
Wednesday, February 12, 6pm.
Address given with RSVP
Mingo County sits in the southwest corner of West Virginia, where the state meets Virginia and Kentucky. Matewan is right on that border. In 1920, the small town became the site of what came to be called, at least by conservatives, the “Matewan massacre.”
This powerful film explores both the massacre and what led to it. The United Mine Workers Union (UMW) had made some headway in the small town: the sheriff and mayor were both union supporters, and there was growing support for the union among the county’s miners. In opposition, the mine owners were determined to crush any hint of a union and used their private police force, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, to do it. Trouble had swept the mining areas of the Appalachian Basin in the years before 1920 but in the other coal mining states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Tennessee, mine owners sometimes came to agreements with their miners and even with the UMW. Not West Virginia. Its government was bought and paid for by the mine owners, who labeled the union supporters communists and hooligans and, with a few exceptions, felt miners were animals, unworthy of being treated as human beings. In the West Virginia of 1920, the Mingo miners rebelled.
John Sayles relied heavily on historical sources in making this superb film. benefitting enormously from Haskell Wexler’s prize-winning photography, which beautifully and dramatically captures the subdued colors and pale light of a mining town in an Appalachian hollow, as the narrow valleys of that region are called. Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) a leftist union organizer (holder of union cards for both the International Workers of the World and the UMW), squelches the mine owner’s divisive ploy of bringing in Italian and Black strikebreakers by convincing the outsiders and the local miners to work together. In response, the mine owners send a dozen armed thugs of the Baldwin-Felts Agency to Matewan to evict union supporters. The sheriff, mayor and miners are waiting for them––armed. Most of the violent final scene’s major characters depict actual players in that battle.
Mary Mc Donnell, as Elma Radnor, is the romantic interest for Joe and strongly supports his work, as does, eventually, Few Clothes (James Earl Jones) a leader of the black strikebreakers.
NOTE: A commentary on how such history-based progressive films are received can be found in the budget for it—$4 million— and its worldwide gross—$1.7 million.
To get a fuller picture of the violence that was common in the mines until 1934, watch the superb documentary that is part of the American Experience series. Available by googling that series and looking for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE MINE WARS. If you start watching at the 60-minute mark, you will get the part of the film that covers the Matewan massacre and its final outcome. Only the progressive FDR and support he got from the progressive Congress ended the worst mine owner abuses and opened the industry to unionization under John L. Lewis, ironically a conservative Republican.
THE MOLLY MAGUIRES (1980), which shows how Irish miners, fresh from the Civil War in their own country, responded to brutal mine owners and mining conditions. It stars Sean Connery and Richard Harris.
Let us know if you need transportation. All are welcome. $5 for non-members.