Screenplay : John Sayles
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1987
Stars : Chris Cooper (Joe Kenehan), Mary McDonnell (Elma Radnor), David Strathairn (Sid Hatfield), Gordon Clapp (Griggs), Kevin Tighe (Hickey), James Earl Jones (Few Clothes), Nancy Mette (Bridey Mae), Will Oldham (Danny Radnor)
Early in "Matewan," writer/director John Sayles' tribute to the working men of the early twentieth century, the owner of a West Virginia coal mining company briefs his new workers about their jobs. These workers are poor black Alabamans who have been shipped up by railroad to take the place of striking miners. The company owner quickly tells them about where they will be working, how long they will be working for, and what they will be paid. Then, almost as though it is a formality, he informs them that they have to buy their own axes, picks, shovels and lamps from the company store and only from the company store. In addition, they must pay the company rent for their meager housing, but the company will be so generous as to advance them their first paycheck to do so.
Welcome to Matewan, a small, company-owned mining town in Mingo County, West Virginia, circa 1920.
In America today, scenes like the one described above don't happen anymore. Because it's been many years since an honest American had to work under such grueling and unfair circumstances, most people have forgotten that it was ever like that.
Many critics have faulted "Matewan" for being too simple in its politics and its ideals about working men versus capitalists. I think that argument is faulty because the film is only idealistic when viewed from today's perspective. Labor unions are now big money, big politics, and just as removed from the plight of the common workers as the companies are. But, if you jump back seventy years, you realize these early union men didn't want political power and riches-- they just wanted to be treated like human beings with intrinsic worth, and make a fair wage for a fair day's work.
The film's hero is Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), a leftist-leaning union organizer who travels to Matewan to help organize the striking mine workers. For every bit that he is upright, honest, decent, and idealistic, the company thugs, Hickey (Kevin Tighe) and Griggs (Gordon Clapp) are mean, cruel, obnoxious and insensitive. They're the kind of black-suited men who call a country girl "mountain trash" to her face, and laugh drunkenly in the back row at church. It's this black hat/white hat mentality that many critics faulted Sayles for. Maybe Sayles' lines are drawn a little too thick, but I have the distinct feeling that even in this simplicity, he wasn't too far off the mark.
However, Sayles deals with the actual organizing of the labor union in very complex, realistic terms. He understands that unions weren't just thrown together with ease. The company has three groups of men working in the mines: the white miners who initially strike, and two groups hired to replace them -- a group of black Alabama miners led by Few Clothes (James Earl Jones) and a group of Italian miners who barely speak English.
It takes a while for these three groups to become comfortable with each other, and there is plenty of racial bickering and unwillingness to cooperate. Even though the miners are the heroes of the film, Sayles still portrays them as often confused and short-sighted to a point that they almost undermine their own ideas.
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") does a beautiful job of capturing the oppressive darkness of the dusty coal mines, and the lush serenity of the Appalachian Mountains. Sayles is a perfectionist with a great ear and eye for historical detail, and "Matewan" is as rich in it as a film can be. From the costumes to the sets to the music, Sayles captures the pre-Depression era with unerring accuracy that lends credibility to his notions.
Because "Matewan" is firm in its convictions, some see it as simplistic. The truth is, it knows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and it doesn't attempt to confuse the audience. Some call this propaganda, which I suppose it is. Today's labor unions may champion this film and put it on high, but deep inside they realize they have little or nothing in common with men like Joe Kenehan. I'm sure Sayles realizes this, too, and in making "Matewan," he was trying to remind them what it was all about in the beginning.
©1997 James Kendrick