Skip to main content

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis the Occupy Wall Street movement burst into the headlines in September 2011 to focus attention on runaway corporate greed and the decline of democracy—problems increasingly prevalent in 21st century America. Aside from the urgent concerns surrounding the true nature and function of American capitalism, the worldwide demonstrations spawned by this movement filled a void left by the destruction of labor unions as prominent advocates for workers’ rights. Occupy unified critics of economic injustice from different walks of life to protest an income gap between corporate executives and their employees that had grown to obscene levels. The top 1% and everyone else. The profound unfairness and injustice of a system that produces such vast disparities has prompted serious concern about the caustic influence monied interests wield over the American political system.

More than ten years later we are living amid a period in which the concentration of wealth is starker than ever as many struggle to stay afloat financially, or just survive. While the larger majority continues to suffer under the persistent effects of economic instability, the ultra-wealthy have enjoyed an unparalleled period of prosperity, while leveraging the social power that attends. More recently, we have been witness to daily scenes of destruction and horrific violence due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As an outgrowth of this, much of the scrutiny on economic inequality and injustice has been focused on a particularly loathsome subset of the 1% in the name of Russian oligarchs. Infamous figures associated with lavish excess and measured by the size, features and expense of their megayachts, with price tags running in the hundreds of millions. 


While it would not be hyperbolic to count many of our own American billionaires within the category of these oligarchs, thus far they’ve mostly been able to elude the notorious label. Even when such comparisons are made, a disproportionate amount of attention is directed at high-profile figures such as Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, while billionaires from Wall Street and the oil industry among the most active in shaping American politics to serve their narrow interests have eluded the public’s attention. This despite the massive influence billionaires such as Peter Thiel, Ken Griffin and Stephen Schwarzman have had over our political system throughout the last decade and longer.

Oligarchies, however, represent a pernicious structure that has had a long and notorious presence in American society. Whether represented by the plantation system reliant upon slavery from the earliest period of English settlement in North America, to the emergence in the 19th century of railroad barons seeking to profit from Manifest Destiny and westward expansionism, to the oil and coal barons who quickly followed as massive swathes of land were stolen from native peoples, consolidating into the figure of the robber baron of the Gilded Age, it is difficult to understate the enormous political influence and power such men (and they were exclusively male) exerted in American history.

While a more progressive tax structure was instituted after the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, along with regulatory policies intended to limit the power of the wealthy, the gradual shift to business-friendly policies in the 50s and late 60s brought another massive expansion of the wealth amongst the top 1% that was apparent by the 1980s. Although the reasons for these developments are numerous and complex, the diminishing influence and power of organized labor in America to protect workers from exploitation is a significant element of this context, while being a force that has only continued to decline in the years since.

While the mass media has often worked to distract the public from such issues, and in many ways created a cult of veneration of the wealthy, the stark injustice at the heart of the disparities celebrated in the lifestyles of the rich and famous have not been lost to some writers, artists and musicians. Novels focused on the lives of people turned into gears by the industrial machine such as Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills (1861), Frank Norris’ The Octopus (1901), Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) and Oil! (1926-27) along with John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle (1936) formed the foundation of working class, or proletarian, literature. In more recent works by authors of greater diversity such as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), addressing the situation of native peoples relocated to urban centers to dissolve into the American melting pot, and Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl (completed in 1939 but not published until 1978), the scope and concerns of this perspective was broadened to include the concerns of minority and marginalized communities.

Among the archive of photo journalism we find Jacob Riis’ stirring images of life in the New York tenements collected in How the Other Half Lives (1890), James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ documentation of poverty during the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with the imagery of people captured by Dorothea Lange of a “world which they helped make but is no longer theirs.” 

John Sayles

John Sayles

Adding a soundtrack to these words and images we might drop the needle on one of the many renditions of Florence Reece’s “Which Side are You On?” along with records released by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, or veering into punk with classic songs by the likes of the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains in a genre that sought to articulate the perspective of disaffected working-class youth as Greil Marcus pointed out about their British forebearers. Sentiments carried forward by groups such as Aus-Rotten and The Coup. Taken together, this sampling reflects some of the sharpest condemnations of economic inequality and the rage of people oppressed by the evils of oligarchic systems that led to the American labor wars.

As a cinematic exposition on the devastation wrought by corporate power in the form of coal companies, John Sayles’ 1987 film, Matewan, (included within The Criterion Collection in 2019) offers a particularly incisive vision. This film conveys an urgent message that has gained renewed relevance considering the economic turmoil so many Americans have experienced since the 2008 financial crisis. This is due not only to the destructiveness of an industry that continues to lobby for increased mining to generate electricity, but also for its depiction of the miners’ struggle for rights against the companies that destroyed the land and condemned so many to lives of misery.

That the film addresses the history of the West Virginia Mine Wars is remarkable as it is a decidedly improbable subject for a feature film in the first place. It joined a handful of others such as The Salt of the Earth (1954) written by Michael Wilson and directed by Herbert J. Biberman, both of whom were blacklisted in Hollywood during the Red Scare, and Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1970), addressing labor history from the peoples’ perspectives. Matewan is even more noteworthy as it is also a period piece taking place in Mingo County and follows the struggles of miners against an inhuman coal company in 1920. A context that lead Charles Maland, writing in Cineaste, to observe, “the importance of Matewan as an independent film with a historical setting and prounion perspective appearing at the end of the Reagan Administration can hardly be overestimated.”

Despite the practical and aesthetic challenges, Sayles, who has said he learned about the events through stories he’d heard while hitchhiking across West Virginia in his college days, was able to secure funding for the project from a small independent distributor. Matewan begins with the voiceover narration of a preacher and miner named Danny Radnor, looking back on the events forming the film’s context: “it were 19 and 20 in the southwest fields and things was tough. The miners was trying to bring the union to West Virginia and the coal operators and their gun thugs was set on keeping them out. Them was hard people, the coal miners . . . nobody you’d want to cross. So, push come to shove and pretty soon we had us a war down there in Mingo County, which in them days was known as ‘bloody Mingo.’ And that’s where it all come to a head, there on Tug Fork, in the town of Matewan.” 

Mother Jones, Sid Hatfield, and Others. ca 1920, by William C. Blizzard

Mother Jones, Sid Hatfield, and Others. ca 1920, by William C. Blizzard

Sayles’ choice to use a fictional character to frame the events within its overarching historical context through a retrospective metadiscourse from the perspective of the community is especially effective. This is so because Radnor, with several other fictional characters, illuminates the creative merging of fact and fiction that makes literature and film such powerful instruments for the reflection of reality. It’s a narrative strategy that allows Sayles to differentiate the subjective story he tells from an outmoded conception of objective history, which given the nature of the events involved, was obscured by innuendo, propaganda and official omission to skew the emplotment of events in favor of those with power and wealth from the start. By embracing the capacity of fiction to reveal the larger truths of history and human experience, Sayles succeeds in creating a film that does justice to the miners and details their struggles in strikingly affective terms.

Sayles’ strategy is bolstered by his effort to provide some much-needed balance on a pivotal chapter in American history, in which the experiences of marginalized populations had been systematically neglected by historians, by documenting “an extremely violent period” that very little “had been written about.” The title of a recent article from Smithsonian Magazine, “The Coal Mining Massacre America Forgot,” emphasizes this point, speaking to the historical neglect of the events portrayed in Matewan. Beyond the details of the clash between the miners and the coal company, culminating in a shootout on the streets of Matewan that left 10 dead, Sayles’ story challenges the dehumanizing stereotypes often used to reduce Appalachian people to the ridiculed status of uneducated hillbillies in the American imaginary.

Another compelling feature of Sayles’ vision is that the oligarch at the center of the narrative is physically absent from the conflict portrayed. The force driving the violence and oppression for its exclusive financial gain is, instead, represented by the shadowy entity of the Stone Mountain Coal Company. Through the actions of this faceless corporation, one that has since gained the legal rights of people as Mitt Romney memorably touted, viewers are shown how oligarchies function through bribery, threats and violence to dictate the decisions and actions of local and state politicians. 

James Earl Jones as Few Clothes

James Earl Jones as Few Clothes

Throughout the film viewers never learn who the individuals directing Stone Mountain Coal are, nor what goes into their deliberations. That last question is plainly obvious, of course, as Howard B. Lee, former Attorney General of West Virginia and author of Bloodletting in Appalachia, noted that it could be “expressed in two words: ‘human greed,’” in quoting Senator William S. Kenyon from a report on the mining strikes of the era. While such a statement expresses an obvious truth, it’s also an important acknowledgement of the distinctly willful human motives lying at the core of the oppressiveness of coal companies.

The viewer is introduced to the company’s intimidation tactics early on in a scene in which their effort to punish a union miner are rebuffed by Matewan’s Mayor, Cabell Testerman, who intercedes to object to the man’s eviction and that of his family by company representatives. Police Chief, Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) soon arrives and agents of the infamous Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency (also involved in the lead up to the Ludlow Massacre), employed as enforcers by the company, provide Hatfield with a writ of eviction. Stressing Kenyon’s point, such actions were taken simply because any demands from the miners that diminished corporate profits, regardless of how large the margins, meager the wages, or inhumane the working conditions, were met with refusal, and in this case, backed by intimidation and force.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Hatfield’s antipathy for the coal company is made clear in this scene when the main agent, Bill Hickey (Kevin Tighe) points out that a trespassing complaint has been signed by the co-founder of the Baldwin-Felts Agency, Thomas Felts. Hatfield responds tersely, “I’ve met Mr. Felts.” The agent, breaking into a smile says, “well good, we won’t have any problem,” to which Hatfield immediately follows, “I wouldn’t pee on him if his heart was on fire.” Hatfield continues saying the evictions are illegal and that they’ll need to go to the capitol to see a judge, adding, “I can’t do nuthin’ about what you pull outside of town limits, but you bother these people under my jurisdiction, I’ll put you under arrest.”

Hickey’s defiant response, “yeah, you and whose army?” signals the company’s willingness to instigate more violent actions, but recognizing his present disadvantage, he relents, saying, “you can’t win, you know? This is going to happen with you, without you. You can’t stop it.” It’s a statement that sets the two forces on a collision course leading inexorably to the violence that erupts in the final scenes.

That this, and numerous other acts of needless violence, resulted from the efforts of miners to secure higher wages and safer working conditions, makes the story of Matewan all the more tragic. With little recourse available to the miners to improve their lot, they sought relief from the control of mining companies through the help of the United Mine Workers of America and the collective power the organization tried to build. This historical context is presented in the film through another fictional character in a former Wobbly, turned pacifist union organizer, Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), having come to the West Virginia coal fields to assist the miners in their struggle against what Lee called the “coal oligarchy.” 

David Strathairn as Sid Hatfield, shootout with Baldwin-Felts agents

David Strathairn as Sid Hatfield, shootout with Baldwin-Felts agents

The main conflict of the film, thus, pits the boundless greed of a ruthless coal company and its enforcers, against the disempowered and impoverished miners who are necessary to the work. The multifaceted nature of this struggle is elaborated brilliantly through the interactions portrayed by a diverse cast of characters, including a group of African Americans and Italians the company brings in to work as strikebreakers, or ‘scabs,’ to undermine the strike, while creating dissension and strife amongst the miners. The use of such tactics, of course, have been commonly utilized to divide and conquer the masses in practically all systems of social oppression whereby a small and elite group wields power over a majority. The maintenance of power by authoritarian leaders and oligarchs alike is enabled through the exploitation of various forms of ideology and propaganda intended to incite suspicion, fear, discrimination and violence between the members of an oppressed population based upon cultural and ethnic differences.

If that were not enough, the company also has a spy amongst the miners in a shop owner, C.E. Lively (Bob Gunton), an historical figure loathed by miners, and acting as an agent provocateur to disrupt the miners’ efforts and incite them to illegal acts the company, as well as local, state, and federal officials, can use to justify their ongoing suppression of union activity. In Sayles fictionalized narrative of the historical events, Lively also works to cast suspicion on Kenehan and almost succeeds in having him assassinated through accusations made by a young woman he has bullied and manipulated.

Graves of Sid Hatfield and Cabell Testerman, Pike County, Kentucky

Graves of Sid Hatfield and Cabell Testerman, Pike County, Kentucky

Sayles’ inclusion of the characters, Few Clothes (James Earl Jones) and Fausto (Joe Grifasi), brings nuance and broader appeal to the socio-historical context of film, while evoking issues raised by Ralph Ellison in his brilliant novel, Invisible Man, that addressed the racism that plagued unions for decades and stymied their unifying efforts. In depicting the West Virginian miners in their interactions with these characters, and the groups they lead, Sayles’ doesn’t shy away from depictions of racism, with some of the miners hurling racial slurs and threats of violence. Few Clothes gives better than he gets and in his display of courage in the face of mindless hatred, he offers an example of how such men can rise above prejudice and unite for their common cause. Through his willingness to engage with the deeply fraught issues of race and nationalism, however, and in way that eschews romanticized depictions and binary oppositions, Sayles confronts the unsettling manifestations of fear, racism and hatred that have so often kept people divided.

With Kenehan providing inspiration, Sayles builds a scene of high drama in the film’s portrayal of the miners’ deliberations as to whether to welcome the new arrivals into the union. In one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, Kenehan, arguing against Lively’s incitements, stirringly appeals to them to recognize their common lot as miners, workers, and human beings: “You want be treated like men. You want to be treated fair. Well, you ain’t men to that coal company. You’re equipment . . . If you stand alone, you’re just so much shit to those people. You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a goddam club! They got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain't but two sides in this world - them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you got to know about the enemy.”

Mary McDonnell as Elma Radnor

Mary McDonnell as Elma Radnor

While it may not reflect what always or even usually happens in a world stricken with divisiveness, fear and suspicion, in Sayles’ world the people are given the grace to make the right decision and come together against their common oppressor. At the same time, we know that the excessive violence perpetrated by coal companies against the miners, and for so long, worked to steel the miners’ resolve in their fight against what seemed the overwhelming power of the coal barons who’d gained control of the land, resources, people and government of West Virginia, and most of the country, at that time. And yet, we also know that people like Sid Hatfield, Cabell Testerman, and many others (aside from Hatfield and Testerman, who was killed in the gunfight, 22 other miners and their allies were put on trial for the killing of 7 Baldwin-Felts agents) courageously stood up against these powerful forces and their ruthless hired guns in simple defense of their communities and lives.

The off-screen death of an unarmed Kenehan who runs into the melee in a desperate attempt to prevent the impending clash from occurring is what gives such profundity and potency to Sayles’ final scene depicting a teenaged Danny Radnor, face smeared with coal dust, stooped, defeated in the bowels of a mine at the film’s end. Thrown back to the haunting image of hope in a seemingly hopeless world envisioned by Emile Zola in the final scene of his own epic novel about the lives of coal miners in France: “on and on, ever more insistently, his comrades were tapping, tapping, as though they too were rising through the ground . . . the whole country was alive with this sound. Men were springing up, a black avenging host was slowly germinating in the furrows, thrusting upwards for the harvests of future ages. And very soon their germination would crack the world asunder.”

As we hear in a final voice over, spoken by an elderly Radnor looking back at this history, Hatfield was murdered in cold blood by Baldwin-Felts agents a little over a year later on August 1, 1921 (101 years ago this week), with a death shot fired by none other than C.E. Lively setting off the Battle of Blair Mountain. In the aftermath of these events, union efforts that had gained momentum were subjected to renewed suppression by mining companies and police, with Governor Morgan declaring martial law and sending in the national guard, and eventually the deployment of federal troops by President Harding

West Virginia Historical Marker, McDowell County Courthouse

West Virginia Historical Marker, McDowell County Courthouse

These results were not what the people of Matewan ever wanted or asked for, nor the miners of Harlan, Kentucky in 1931, or Ludlow, Colorado in 1914, nor those in the scores of other places in the US and around the world. The sad and brutal consequences of these violent outbreaks are what the mining officials and their allies brought due to their insatiable greed and disregard for human life. One might even say that the conflicts that erupted in such instances were the expected results of the widespread corruption and lack of protection afforded by state and federal governments that consistently sided with the coal oligarchs in their refusals to protect the miners from even the most egregious abuses.

Such are the means and measures that lay bare the functioning of an insidious system designed to keep communities impoverished and entrap workers in a system of virtual slavery tied to inescapable cycles of privation and the destruction wrought by the mines. In being reduced to such a lowly status, however, the miners were forced to confront the realization that they had no one else they could rely upon but themselves, making their resolve to break the iron grasp the coal companies had over them and their families more determined and furious.

Thus was the inevitable result of “quasi-feudal” hold, as labor scholar, Charles A. Zappia, called it, whereby coal companies perpetuated all manner of abuse and violence to maintain control through such panoptical means as the establishment of company stores and the construction of housing and towns the miners were forced into as a condition of employment. Any who refused, or dared to support unionizing efforts, were subjected to blacklisting, physical assault and murder. Adding insult to injury, the debts accrued by miners trapped in this bleak existence, including the cost of the tools they used in the mines, as well as for transportation of those, especially African American and European immigrants brought in from out of state, were exacerbated by the issuance of company scrip that created a closed economic system.

Based on the criticisms reviewers of Matewan have directed at Sayles, with one calling the film “a righteous homily without the grits,” and for making the conflicts too stark, the relationships of the oppressed too harmonious, or for what he didn’t or couldn’t include in the film’s 135-minute runtime, perhaps it’s a story better left untold. Or at least by a filmmaker with Sayles’ allegiances. Lost in such criticisms, however, is the broader point that what happened at Matewan is an event that has been systematically excluded, and continues to be, from American history. For some, perhaps especially those who have never seen a coal mine, much less worked one, a strict adherence to irrefutable facts and truth (and impossible standard, of course) is more vital than the efforts Sayles put forth to draw this story from the shadows of history, giving voice to those who have for so long been silenced and deprived of the opportunity to tell their stories.

If one is looking for more authentic depictions of coal miners, they might check out Harlan County U.S.A. If one desires a book of history, as fraught as that term and mode of discourse is, they can read Lon Savage’s Thunder in the Mountains, although I’d caution against expecting objectivity in either. Lived human experience doesn’t allow for that kind of objectivity as the only way we can ever truly engage with knowledge and story is through our own limited subjectivities. Of course, this discussion may prompt us to ask why it is that the calls for accuracy, facts and objectivity seem so often evoked where the stories and experiences of the marginalized and oppressed are concerned? And in the face of literal mountains of misinformation and manufactured histories in which the suppression of the testimony of the people has been rendered insignificant or nonexistent.

By shifting the concern from what constitutes a good story with compelling characters to one predicated on historical accuracy—something no movie can ever accomplish by virtue of the very form of the art itself—we lose what is most important, vital and sustaining: the capacity to move an audience and make us feel concern and empathy for the experiences of others.

For those who can see a coal miner, or members of any oppressed population, as human beings, as people deserving of dignity and entitled to human rights, Matewan is an example of what this can look like. This film brings the story of the coal miners of Mingo County in 1920 who fought to defend their basic humanity to the attention of his audiences. In so doing it highlights the courage of figures like Sid Hatfield who stood with the community against the coal oligarchy and its brutal enforcers. Sayles’ intention in this project was not to present every detail the way it was, as such a perspective is always already impossible to represent due to the subjective nature of lived reality, but simply to get his audience to see the world in another way: through the perspectives of others

To present a better way of engaging with one’s neighbors. To show how things might or could be if only working-class people were able to put aside their disagreements and suspicions, and avoid falling victim to the traps created by fear that so often turns to hatred, so that we may see each other in ourselves. And, ultimately, to create a sense of intimate belonging within a community and world where all forms of oppression, hatred and violence committed against one is seen as an attack against all of us.