John Sayles: “Matewan”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

“If storytelling has a positive function, it’s to put us in touch with other people’s lives, to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we’ve never met, to help us see beyond our own experience. The people I read about in the history books and the people I met in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia had important stories to tell and I wanted to pass them on.”

So says John Sayles, director of the 1987 film Matewan, in his book Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie “Matewan.”

Based on a real event that took place in Matewan, West Virginia, on May 19, 1920, Sayles’s film is a fictional telling of this important event in labor union history. As we celebrate Labor Day, it seems fitting to remember this armed conflict between members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and Baldwin-Felts private “detectives” who were working on behalf of the mine owners to stamp out the union.

Sayles’s film is not a documentary – and he deviates from historical fact both in the characters he introduces (such as Joe Kenehan, the outside union organizer, played by Chris Cooper) and in the focus he places on the debate between violence and pacifism as strategies for winning the union wars. Indeed, some viewers, such as historian Eric Foner, have criticized the film’s “absence of context, both historical and political.”

These viewers rightly point out that the “Matewan Massacre” was “only one episode, and by no means the most dramatic, in the long bloody struggle to organize West Virginia.” As John Newsinger points out in International Socialism Journal,

This particular phase, immediately after the First World War, was to culminate in the march on company-controlled Logan County by over 15,000 armed miners in the week-long battle for Blair Mountain, which only came to an end with the intervention of federal troops.

Even though Sayles’s film doesn’t tell the whole story of Mingo County and the mining wars, it nevertheless brings this important – but little-known – chapter in American history to life. Foner says,

. . . [T]he film’s greatest strength [is] its evocation of the texture of the miner’s world. Through music, regional accents, and numerous local characters, Sayles successfully creates a sense of the Matewan community. Visually, too, the film is remarkably effective, thanks to Haskell Wexler’s careful and deliberate cinematography. . . . It succeeds admirably in creating a sense of time and place.

And says Newsinger, Matewan is “a powerful fictional celebration of working class struggle and solidarity that made dramatic use of the historic Matewan episode.”

After you watch Matewan, you’ll likely want to learn more about the actual historical event, including the role played by Matewan chief of police, Sid Hatfield (played by David Strathairn in the film) and including the Battle of Blair Mountain. You might to visit, the website maintained by the town. You might want to read Denise Giardina’s 1987 novel, Storming Heaven, which tells the story of the mine wars, with a particular focus on the Battle of Blair Mountain. And you’ll surely want to explore the music of West Virginia singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens, whose song “Fire in the Hole” is the theme song for the film and who is featured in the film as a Freewill Baptist singer. And when you want to learn more about the later history of coal miners’ labor activism, you’ll want to watch Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary, Harlan County, U.S.A..

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Watch:This week, you’ll want to check out two great clips from Matewan. In the first, Joe Kenehan (played by Chris Cooper) explains the purpose of a union. He tells the miners: “There ain’t but two sides to 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.” The second clip features Hazel Dickens singing “Gathering Storm” at the funeral of a young miner who lost his life in the conflict. Finally, I highly recommend watching this short excerpt of John Sayles being interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! He talks about Matewan and reflects on the current labor union movement.

Image credit: John Sayles,