Mountaineer Movies: ‘Matewan’ Still Inspires 30 Years On

Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, center-right) addresses the union miners in Matewan. Via Cinecom Entertainment Group

Tuesday, May 19 marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Matewan, a shootout between miners and coal company guards in a small West Virginia town. The Battle of Matewan sparked the most spectacular phase of the Mine Wars, a series of armed conflicts between miners and coal companies in the early 20th century. In honor of the anniversary, I decided to review John Sayles’ 1987 film Matewan, which presents a fictionalized account of the labor strife leading up to the battle.

Featuring an all-star cast including Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, and David Straithairn, Matewan is probably the closest West Virginia history will ever get to a proper major motion picture treatment.  The movie provides a rich picture of the central coalfields during a formative, but oft-forgotten moment in their history, and the questions it raises around labor solidarity, political violence, and race relations remain relevant today. This may explain why it remains popular over three decades after it was released.

Set in 1920, at its core Matewan is a labor movie that follows the efforts of Joe Kenehan (Cooper), a fictional labor organizer sent to organize the miners of the southern West Virginia coalfields. Kenehan’s efforts to organize are complicated by racism and distrust between white, black, and immigrant miners; sabotage and intimidation from the coal company; and the ever-looming threat of violence escalating out of control.

However, Matewan is so much more than its central plot. 

Much of the film’s meat lies in watching Sayles’ web of characters fight their personal struggles amid the wider conflict. Elma Radnor (McDonnell), a coal miner’s widow who runs the town boardinghouse, quietly bears the gendered impact of exploitation and violence as she balances her support for the union against her economic precarity and worries about her young miner son. Meanwhile, “Few Clothes” Johnson (Jones), an African American miner, must fight for inclusion in the union while navigating racial redlines from both the coal company and fellow miners. And that’s just to name a few of the well-realized characters, who also include David Straithairn as a too-cool Sid Hatfield, Matewan’s sheriff who played a major role in the real Battle of Matewan.

Sid Hatfield (Straithairn, left) deals with some coal company goons led by Griggs (Gordon Clapp, center) in Matewan. Via Criterion.

Matewan presents a version of Appalachia so many of us wanted to see growing up. Setting aside the common stereotype of toothless, uneducated hillbillies, Sayles presents the struggles of everyday Appalachians as worthy of their own epic film. What’s more, he presents them as complex, compelling personalities capable of heroism and villainy on par with the greatest dramatic characters.

That rich depiction can in part be attributed to Sayles’ basing Matewan on solid historical research. Although much of the film’s story is fictionalized, according to Chuck Keeney, an assistant professor of history and co-founder of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, Sayles was meticulously historical in his portrayal of the coalfields.

“It does a lot of things right. It depicted the oppressive mine guard system, and how they viewed the locals, how they ruled over them,” Kenney said.  “It was also good at showing the different groups of miners in West Virginia: the native whites, African Americans, and immigrants….There were elements that were very authentic.” 

However, like all adaptations, Matewan did have to alter some aspects of reality. “It’s not so much that they got things wrong. It was a movie, so they took some liberties,” Keeney said. For example, James Earl Jones’ character “Few Clothes” and certain scenes were inspired by people and events from the 1912 Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike, another particularly violent episode in labor history. 

“Few Clothes” Johnson (Jones, center) arrives to discuss business with the all-white union in Matewan. Via Knightlyemma.

Despite being an amazing movie overall, Matewan does stumble at times. With a 2 hour, 13 minute runtime, the movie could stand to cut a couple scenes. In particular, despite its more nuanced examination of women’s experiences elsewhere, one contrived storyline culminates in a false rape allegation that is both odious and unnecessary to advance the plot. 

Moreover, while Matewan is much better in depicting Appalachians than the average movie, some of the film’s choices subtly reinforce negative stereotypes. With union organizer Joe Kenehan coming from out-of-state, Matewan erases the area’s actual union leaders during the time of the battle, who were mostly West Virginians fighting for change in their state. Furthermore, in posing its debates about political violence and racism as between the more enlightened Kenehan and local miners, it does play into the common trope of Appalachians as violent and racists.

With that said, Matewan is still a well-made, entertaining film vital to understanding both the history of the Mine Wars and how that history is remembered today. 

“[Matewan]’s been incredibly significant. It came out in 1987, the same year Denise Giardina’s novel Storming heaven came out. After that novel and the movie, you saw a lot of works on the Mine Wars come out,” Keeney said. 

For those interested in going beyond the movie to learn more about the Mine Wars, Keeney recommends the 2016 American Experience documentary The Mine Wars, as well as the work of David Alan Corbin, whom Keeney recently interviewed as part of a series commemorating the recent anniversary.

So, whether you’re a student of Appalachian history, a lover of good independent cinema, or just looking for a good Friday evening in quarantine, consider picking up a copy of Matewan, now available remastered on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion.  

Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Arlington, VA. He also comes from a proud family of nurses, including his sister and aunt. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield.

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