John Sayles’s Matewan and Appalachian history: An excerpt from American Energy Cinema

This spring, West Virginia University Press will publish the collection American Energy Cinema, edited by Robert Lifset, Raechel Lutz, and Sarah Stanford-McIntyre. A volume that explores how Hollywood movies have portrayed energy from the early film era to the present, it’s been praised by Michael E. Webber at the University of Texas as “captivating and informative for movie lovers, energy enthusiasts, and historians alike.” Here, we share an excerpt from one of the book’s essays—a study of the movie Matewan by historian James R. Allison, III.

Matewan’s focus on the fine-grained interactions of a diverse community coming together can be traced to John Sayles’s own intellectual journey to this historical subject. In Thinking in Pictures, the filmmaker explains how his path to the Matewan Massacre traveled through the work of new labor historians, who by the 1970s were dismantling their field’s dominant “institutional” approach, which focused on labor’s most visible components: trade unions, labor leaders, and strikes. In contrast, these new labor historians were interested in better understanding workers, and they did so by exploring the intricate social relations forged within their workplaces and communities. This turn reflected the discipline’s broader interest in the social history of everyday folk, and it produced significant insights into the long-term, multigenerational process of class development. As E. P. Thompson, a leading advocate of this new approach, explained, “We cannot understand class unless we see it as a social and cultural formation, arising from the process which can only be studied as [workers] work themselves out over a considerable historical period.” The new labor history, in other words, went to the ground to get to know the people, but then remained there over time to best explain the development of working-class culture.

Converted to the cause, Sayles’s film excels in the former but has no time for the latter. In Matewan, typically abstract institutions like “the company,” “the company town,” and “the union” get transformed into a collection of personal relationships worked out in this particular place. As such, the specifics of place matter quite a bit to understanding these interactions, as well as to the film’s success in portraying the workers’ world. So while John Sayles’s familiar Western narrative carries the audience along, Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler frames the narrow verticality of this Appalachian hollow in such a way as to make inescapable the intimate entwinement of workplace with homelife. In this tight space, there are few unfamiliar faces or single-layered relationships. Danny must share his rooming house with the hated Baldwins, Sid Hatfield regularly crosses paths with his adversaries as he patrols Main Street, and ethnically diverse communities are “segregated” by just a few hundred yards, if at all. This intimate and textured look at mining life is further enhanced by Matewan’s use of local actors, whose regional accents and dialects provide some stilted prose but also lend an air of authenticity to these Appalachian scenes. Even the largely amateur cast’s uneven performances somehow contribute to the film’s credibility, similar to a Coen Brothers’ production like Fargo (1996) or No Country for Old Men (2007). In other words, this is not some sweeping Hollywood epic, but a grainy, realistic depiction of life in an Appalachian coal town.

And yet, despite all the benefits of this layered portrayal of interpersonal relations, Matewan’s lack of historical perspective leaves it susceptible to a long-running criticism of popular depictions of Appalachia. That is, the film fails to connect these events in Mingo County to larger processes being worked out in the region and the nation over time. Since at least the late 1970s, Appalachian scholars have been combating explanations of the region’s problems that center on the uniqueness of its people and its isolation in the mountains. Current scholarship emphasizes the dynamic and diverse history of Appalachian communities, rejecting the static and stereotypical “culture-of-poverty” portrayals recently (re)made popular by J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. This scholarship also reveals the region’s longstanding connection to larger capitalist networks, its preindustrial characteristics that shaped later industrial exploitation, and the partnership between absentee capitalists and local elites that produced corrupt state apparatuses to plunder the province. But sadly, none of this broader picture is present in Matewan. As historian Eric Foner noted twenty years ago when reviewing this film, “The relentless concentration on the local community, Matewan’s greatest strength, also contributes to its most glaring weakness—the absence of context, both historical and political.” That critique still resonates today.

And I think I know why. For a film that ostensibly is about the coal mining industry, Sayles and his cast say remarkably little about coal or the land from which it is mined. Instead, the film’s focus, like the vast majority of academic attention paid to Appalachia, remains on the plight of laborers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly as new labor historians have deepened our understanding of the relations between workers and how categories of race, gender, and class can both structure working communities and sometimes be transcended for the greater good. These are invaluable insights and are central to Sayles’s message. But what gets lost in these vivid portrayals of Appalachian coal miners is a sense that their social interactions occurred within a wider world of economic and ecological change. Miners were not always so destitute, their options were not always so limited, and the tensions between them and mine operators did not constantly erupt into work stoppages and violence. This is not to say that the work was ever easy or safe, the wages fair, or the struggle to survive in this exploitative labor regime merely episodic. But less spectacular everyday struggles were key to developing a class consciousness that could sustain labor solidarity, and open conflicts like the one portrayed in Matewan occurred mainly at significant inflection points within the broader coal industry. These were moments of crisis produced by local reactions to shifting external forces, not workers simply reaching a “tipping point” of frustration with existing conditions. The real Matewan Massacre, for example, came at the end of southern West Virginia’s greatest economic boom, when World War I’s extraordinary demand for and federal oversight of the nation’s coal supplies emboldened the United Mine Workers of America to expand into Mingo County. Such expansion, however, ran headfirst into a postwar recession that brought declining coal demand and a new era of relative stagnation that would dominate the industry for the next fifty years. “Thus, the violence in West Virginia,” according to historian John Williams, “was symptomatic both of a sharp short-run downturn in the coal industry and the onset of long-term stagnation.” Local factors certainly mattered: Mingo County’s relatively poor coal quality meant that it felt the brunt of this slowdown first, and Matewan’s position as one of the few “free” towns not owned by a coal company allowed for the presence of independent political actors like Sheriff Sid Hatfield and Mayor Cabell Testerman. But these local forces operated within broader structural changes that the film ignores.

In addition to larger economic trends, labor violence was also the result of working people running out of other options. Again, Matewan does an excellent job of conveying the desperate sense of dependency that pervaded most coal communities by the early twentieth century. In the film, we see mining families reliant on the Stone Mountain Coal Company for nearly everything, from housing to jobs to food to medical care and even currency in the form of company scrip. But while this dependency is palpable and was real, the film offers little explanation for how it came to be. Environmental historians have done better, particularly Steven Stoll in his recent account of how mountain folk were dispossessed of the private property and shared commons that previously provided subsistence. According to Stoll, as Northern capitalists and local elites sought to develop West Virginia’s vast resources in the years following the Civil War, their corporate “fixers” exploited discrepancies in land deeds to establish superior title or strong-armed uninformed mountaineers to sell mineral and timber rights for which they had little obvious use. This mass transfer of property from small holders to capitalists enabled new land practices, such as large-scale timbering and mining, that undercut the ecological base of the old subsistence system. When denuded commons could no longer support the game and gardens that had sustained previous generations, mountain farmers drifted into coal camps with little option of returning to their previous lives. The situation grew worse after 1900, when coal operators began recruiting a “judicious mixture” of African Americans and European immigrants to undercut labor solidarity. These newcomers had even less recourse to the land once the exploitative nature of the labor regime became apparent. Matewan beautifully depicts the heroic efforts to overcome ethnic divisions and combat the exploitation derived from dependency, but it glosses over the longer history that made direct confrontation through strikes seem the only viable option.

And so, for all its rich renderings of life within a mining community, Matewan’s myopic lens of labor history renders opaque the broader tale of Appalachia’s industrial exploitation, ecological destruction, and the increasingly limited options of its people. The film offers snippets of this deeper understanding, such as when absurdly stereotypical “genuine hill people,” who we are told “had most their land stole by the company,” emerge out of the forest to defend a striking coal camp. In another scene, we see an entire community provision that same camp with resources from the surrounding mountainside, reflecting the enduring knowledge of a previous subsistence system. But like the mysterious hill people who simply disappear back into the woods in search of game and free-range hogs, these insights are ephemeral. They provide hints of a significant, deeper history that the film leaves unexplored. Instead, Matewan offers a trade-off, providing a close look at the interpersonal relations of a mining community driven to the edge at the expense of a broader understanding of the forces that brought them there.

Read more in American Energy Cinema.

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