Movie Reviews

Matewan – How Many Have Given Their Lives in the Struggle for Workers’ Rights?

Written by John Sayles
Directed by John Sayles

One of the most telling lines in this John Sayles film about real events is “You ain’t men to that coal company…” For that is the way workers were at the time; merely numbers to the well-off who profited on the backs of the working man. Right now, it seems like we are allowing those times to creep up on us once again.

Set in the town of Matewan, West Virginia, a coal mining town in the 1920’s, Matewan follows the struggle between a labor leader Joe Kenehan (portrayed by Chris Cooper) and the owners of the Stone Mountain Coal Company. The owners are never actually shown through the film. Instead, we see their henchmen from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency doing their dirty work. They are just an abstract idea, sort of like the difference between Sam Walton’s family and the workers on the floor of your local Wal-Mart. Anyone who argues against government regulations of corporations, believing that if a company is prosperous they will automatically treat workers well should view this film. Although somewhat glorified to tell the story, the conditions of the worker’s lives were essentially the same at the time, if not more squalid.

Right from the opening sequence, writer and director John Sayles paints a portrait of rich versus poor as he shows the deplorable conditions and abject poverty the coal miners lived in as they exited the mines for the day and walked through the town all filthy and dirty. The miners were kept tied to the company by being paid with company script which was used to pay for their homes and any goods they needed. These goods were bought from the company store, where the prices were often inflated. Any worker caught buying goods anywhere else faced possible termination. Almost from birth to death, the people of Matewan, West Virginia are completely at the company’s mercy. It’s quite obvious that most of those who work in the mine will meet their deaths there, either by accident or black-lung disease.

Joe Kenehan arrives in town as a representative of the United Mine Worker’s Union. As he’s riding in on the rails, he witnesses the Stone Mountain Coal Company’s attempt to circumvent the worker’s union movement. Black and Italian workers are being secretly brought in as “scabs” igniting a firestorm of racial hostility in the mix.

What follows is a power struggle as the hired thugs attempt to strong-arm the miners and the town into capitulating to their demands to throw the union out and go back to being slaves to the owners of the Coal Company. The mayor of the town (Josh Mostel) and Police Chief Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) are caught in the middle as they try to keep peace between the two forces. Hatfield (from the same family notorious for the Hatfield/McCoy feud) is particularly interesting as he shows right off the bat that he will not be intimidated by the Company. When two thugs attempt to evict workers from the Company-provided homes for the “crime” of joining the Union, he is not afraid to stand up and say that their documents aren’t legal and they must go through the due process of court to be able to evict them. For the time being, he does not directly side with the miners and the Union, but by the end of the film he must make a choice.

There are other smaller stories going on around all of this as well. Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell) runs a boarding house and is raising a young, enigmatic son (Will Oldham) by herself after her husband is killed in the mines. There is conflict between the people of the town and the new immigrants as well as the blacks. Eventually they all end up on the same side when they realize how the Company is treating them, but the dynamics of getting to that point are handled quite well.

One disappointment I have after seeing this is that Oldham hasn’t gone further in his career. An older version of his character narrates the film, but he portrays his character quite well. Danny Radnor seems to have ambitions beyond the town of Matewan and is practicing to be a preacher at services. His enthusiastic delivery of the story of Joseph and Potiphir from the pulpit is a turning point in the film.

Chris Cooper breaks out in this first film role as the pacifist Union Organizer. He is quiet and thoughtful, yet projects strength and courage of his convictions. He doesn’t back down when violently confronted by the hired thugs. His performance is convincing as he treads the line between the desperate workers as their situation deteriorates, holding up the promise of a better future despite having to leave their homes to live in tents and a poverty worse than what they left. He’s believable as he holds up the promise of a better life to them and the promise of a better future for their descendants. Heck, I’d follow him, no problem.

A standout performance here is by James Earl Jones as Johnson, the focus of the black miners who are brought in as scabs. Not quite their “leader”, Johnson seems to have more hope for a better life than others and can see possibilities where others wallow in acceptance. He’s at a point where he’s ready to stand up and demand to be treated as an equal, even if it means taking advantage of the plight of the white mine workers. They need the blacks on their side standing with them and have no choice but to accept the black workers when Johnson wishes to join the Union.

The cinematography in the movie is beautiful. The film has a grainy quality which mixes perfectly with the sepia tones, giving me the same feeling I get when browsing through an old family album. Lighting scenes of the mines are handled quite well, with workers back in the darkness and walking into the light only to see how dark their faces still truly are after a day amidst the coal dust.

The soundtrack is notable too for the way it uses a “twang”-ing electric guitar and harmonica to draw in the feelings of poverty and despair. In particular the opening sequence has a folksy sound to it where a man coughs and sputters while a harmonica plays leads to the though of just how long will he remain in this world.

There are lots of familiar faces here all with stand-out performances: Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe, Gordon Clapp, Ken Jenkins. Sayles has a minor role as a bible-thumping holy-roller preacher who seems to also be under the Company’s influence.

All in all, this film is a terrific study of the labor movement and the poor working conditions under which miners suffered. It’s terrific to watch, and should be required viewing in high school American History classes.

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