Matewan (1987): Reclaiming the Past

Chris Cooper in Matewan (Sayles, 1987) | photo courtesy of Criterion

The Felts keep getting themselves killed in West Virginia.

Each spring for twenty years and running in Matewan, WV, the local drama group has re-enacted the 1920 event known as the Matewan Massacre; a pivotal moment in the state’s Mine Wars. In brief, the massacre was a shoot-out between union coal miners, aided by the town’s police chief, Sid Hatfield, and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a group of private detectives employed as strikebreakers by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. When the shooting stopped, nine men were left dead, including brothers Albert and Lee Felts. Sid Hatfield and several miners were charged with murder but all were acquitted, if that tells you anything about what the locals thought of the coal companies and their gun thugs at that time.

During the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, carpetbaggers came to the Mountain State—my state—and got to buying up land for the purposes of digging up coal. To mine that coal, these titans of industry cultivated a diverse workforce of native whites, Black workers shipped in from the South, and European immigrants fresh off the boat at Ellis Island. It didn’t matter if these workers spoke English or not. In fact, it was preferred that they could not; the language barrier would make union organizing all the more difficult. A majority of these workers lived in company-owned housing in company-owned towns. They were paid with the company’s own form of currency (called “scrip”) that could only be spent at the company store. In her autobiography, labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones offers a succinct summary of just how much influence these companies wielded over their employees: “Men who live up those lonely creeks have only the mine owners’ Y.M.C.A.s, the mine owners’ preachers and teachers, the mine owners’ doctors and newspapers to look to for their ideas. So they don’t get many.” If a man bucked the system and got his own ideas, talked of organizing a union, then that man ran the risk of being fired, blacklisted, beaten, killed. As Mother Jones says elsewhere in her autobiography, “the miners had been peons for years, kept in slavery by the guns of the coal company.” Just like a coal mine filling up with dust and gas, it was only a matter of time before things exploded in southern West Virginia.

For years, the history of the Mine Wars was suppressed. In 2021, the New York Times ran a piece headlined “A Century Ago Miners Fought in a Bloody Uprising. Few Know About It Today.” As the piece from the Times explains, “the coal industry and its supporters in state government…tried to smother any public discussion of the history.” I can personally attest to this. I grew up five miles from Cabin Creek, WV, the site of the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912, arguably the first major spark of the Mine Wars. It was during this strike that Mother Jones was arrested and placed under house arrest in nearby Pratt, WV. Dozens of men were killed, and the governor declared martial law in the region to squelch the violence. These events somehow remained unknown to me until I was an adult.

In 1977, Jimmy Carter signed into federal law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. This law requires coal companies to plant a few trees once they’re done blasting the top off a mountain. There is not, however, a law allowing for reclamation of the past, a law that requires coal companies to reveal rather than conceal the dark history of the mining industry.

Enter filmmaker John Sayles. In 1987, Sayles wrote and directed Matewan, a fictionalized account of the Matewan Massacre. In his book Thinking In Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan, Sayles writes of hitchhiking through West Virginia and Kentucky during the 1960s. He hitched rides from folks who worked in the mines or were retired from the mines or had family in the mines. He listened to their stories. “The stories had a lot of the Old West to them,” he writes in the book. “It was a whole hunk of history that I’d never heard of, that a lot of people had never heard of….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 find a way to pass them on.”  With Matewan, Sayles found a way.

A key character in Matewan is the teenage Danny (Will Oldham). The film is framed with his narration, an older Danny reminiscing about the events of the film as if we—the audience—are sitting next to him on his front porch. The narration brings to mind the oral storytelling tradition so central to Appalachian culture. This is a story that will be told and passed from one generation to the next, even if the powers that be say otherwise. “It were 1920 in the southwest field and things was tough,” the older Danny says at the start of the film. “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.” Hearing these words, delivered with an Appalachian twang, establishes that we’re not getting a sanitized, textbook version of events.

Sayles does not adhere strictly to the historical record. He condenses events for pacing’s sake, and most of the characters are amalgamations of the real individuals involved. This artistic license, though, ultimately allows Sayles to create a compelling narrative that still evokes a sense of truth. As one character says in the film, “Sometimes you got to tell a little bit of a lie just to get the truth across.”

It’d be easy for Matewan to become bogged down by its politics, turning its characters into caricatures, or lean into exploitation by relying too much on action and gunplay. The politics and action are there, but Sayles avoids the misstep of going big by always remembering the human element, and the human cost. The ensemble nature of the film allows us to see coal camp life from a variety of perspectives, from the union organizer to the miners to the mothers and widows, and to the gun thugs brought in as mine guards. 

Take for instance an early moment in the film: We meet union organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his onscreen debut) on a train bound for Matewan. When the train stops outside of town, Joe pokes his head out to investigate. He watches as a boxcar opens up and a group of Black miners brought in as scabs from Alabama are offloaded. Sayles keeps the frame close on them and we see the hulking figure of Few Clothes Johnson (James Earl Jones). Joe and Few Clothes (the nickname is never explained, though the character is certainly based on a real coal miner with the same name) lock eyes, both of them hovering somewhere between apprehension and curiosity with their expressions as they take stock of their new surroundings. Their faces anchor the moment in reality and create a sense of shared humanity. Rather than relegating the Black miners to the background of the story, Sayles keeps them at the forefront, along with the Italian immigrants also brought in as scabs. Soon enough, the Black and Italian groups throw in with the union, the prejudices and grievances between the various races and ethnicities transcended by the cause of the union. Sayles returns frequently to other moments of shared humanity: white miners playing the guitar and fiddle, joined by an Italian miner on the mandolin and a Black miner on the harmonica; a white mother and Italian mother sharing recipes; a baseball game with the miners and their families competing in good fun. These moments add little to the film’s overall plot, but they prove themselves vital to understanding what the miners and their families stood to lose and stood to gain.

With its focus on working-class characters like Few and Joe, Matewan can be seen as a people’s history of the Mine Wars. Sayles’s crosscutting in two key sequences demonstrates the film’s scope, drawing upon the ensemble cast and the film’s locations to create a fuller picture of a moment in time.

The first of these sequences comes about twenty minutes into the film. A Baptist preacher, played by Sayles himself, ministers to a packed church. “The Prince of Darkness is upon the land,” he says. “Now in the Bible his name is Beelzebub. Lord of the Flies. Right now on earth today his name is Bolshevist! Socialist! Communist! Union man!” The moment is contrasted with a union meeting across town, Cooper’s Joe preaching his own gospel to a group of striking miners: “They got you fighting 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.” The church is brightly lit, whereas the union men gather in a dimly lit restaurant not much brighter than a mine, an armed miner standing watching at the door. This juxtaposition of the church meeting versus the union meeting communicates essential historical context: in a company town, there were things you could yell freely from the pulpit and then there were other things that if you dared to utter them—even if you whispered them in the shadows—you ran the risk of getting yourself killed.

The second of these sequences comes as the film nears its final act. Unbeknownst to the miners, union sympathizer C.E. Lively (Bob Gunton) is an undercover agent for the Baldwin-Felts. He orchestrates a plot that sees Joe framed as the company’s spy. Few Clothes is tasked with eliminating Joe. The young Danny learns of the plot and must weigh disclosing the truth against threats of violence from the Baldwin-Felts if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut. Throughout the ensuing sequence, the action alternates between a church where Danny preaches to the miners, C.E. Lively listening intently to Danny’s every word from the back, and Few and Joe gathered around a campfire at the striking miners’ tent colony. Few has his hand on his gun while Joe remains oblivious to what may happen. The sequence is one of the tensest in the film, but the shifting perspectives—from Danny to C.E. to Few and Joe—elevates the moment beyond mere suspense. Through C.E., the sequence shows how conniving and sinister the mine guards could be. Through Few and Joe, we learn how the miners were susceptible to and victimized by falsehoods. Through Danny, Sayles reveals that knowing the right thing did not always mean it was easy doing the right thing.

It’s worth mentioning that a musical score is notably absent in both of these sequences, as it is in the film’s climatic shootout. The absence pulls us into the scene even more, allowing us to feel as if we are right there with the characters. We hear their words. We hear the surrounding environment, an environment that comes to life through its sounds: a train whistle, the crunch of gravel underfoot, the cocking of a gun. Given the choice between spectacle and simplicity, Sayles chooses simplicity and grounds the film in what is palpable, what is real. Lending to the authenticity is the fact that the film was shot on location in southern West Virginia, with many locals serving as extras. 

Visually at times, Matewan resembles a documentary with its use of natural lighting, and the way in which cinematographer Haskell Wexler frames many of his shots. An early tracking shot following a handcar as it passes a row of miners’ shanties looks practically like old newsreel footage. A muted color palette gives the film a faded quality appropriate for both conveying the past and for mirroring the darkness that comes with digging coal underground. The only instance of red just might be when the bloodshed comes. In these moments, Wexler’s camera doesn’t cut away from the violence. To do so would be pulling punches, and Matewan pulls no punches.

David Strathairn plays Sid Hatfield. Whereas many of the film’s principal characters are fictitious, Hatfield is an exception. A former miner himself, Hatfield serves as the police chief for Matewan. While the coal company owns the land surrounding the town, the town itself remains independent, prompting Hatfield to tell the company, “I can’t do nothing about what you pull outside town limits, but you bother these people under my jurisdiction, I’ll put you under arrest.” The first few times we see Hatfield in the film, he’s in the shadows, standing silently by as he watches over the people in his town. He is positioned as their protector, skeptical of outsiders, including Joe. He has something of a ghostly presence, a haunted quality that screams “dead man walking,” and he knows it. 

Nicknamed “Smilin’” Sid, he smiles but once in the film, remarking wryly that a group of Baldwin-Felts “have come to kill me.” Amazingly, Sid Hatfield doesn’t die in the Matewan Massacre despite firing the opening salvo. The film’s closing narration, though, does explain what happened to the real-life Hatfield a year after the massacre: he was gunned down on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse.His killers, a group of Baldwin-Felts, were never even brought to trial. Given the circumstances of his death, perhaps his ghostly figure still haunts the streets of Matewan today.

“You can’t win, you know,” a Baldwin-Felts gun thug tells Sid Hatfield in the film. “It’s gonna happen with you or without you. You can’t hold it back.”

For many years, it might seem the gun thug was proven right. Union numbers shrank while coal companies got rich from increased mechanization in the mines. King Coal and its false promises of prosperity reigned supreme in the Mountain State, despite mine-related disasters like Buffalo Creek, Farmington, and Sago. You could draw a straight line from the coal company propaganda of the 1920s to the campaign promises of Donald Trump in 2016. At a May 2016 rally in Charleston, WV, Trump donned a miner’s cap and mimed digging coal, to thunderous applause. He vowed to bring back coal jobs. He fueled the mostly white crowd’s passion with anti-immigrant rhetoric, bringing to mind Joe Kenehan’s words: “They got you fighting white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow….” West Virginia was one of six states that went for Carter in 1980, one of ten for Dukakis in 1988, and it went for Bill Clinton twice in the 1990s. In 2016, Trump won every county in the state and had his second-largest margin of victory anywhere in the entire country.

Despite the coal industry’s attempt to suppress the past—for decades, state history textbooks made no mention of the Mine Wars—reminders are still able to be found. If you visit Matewan today, you can see bullet holes from the Matewan Massacre in the side of an old post office building, bearing witness to the bloody events of that day. However, a few bullet holes are not the only testament. In recent years, there’s been a renewed interest in the Mine Wars and a resurgence of labor activism largely brought about by everyday citizens. In 2015, the doors opened to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum; in 2017, to commemorate the film’s 30th anniversary, the museum hosted a screening of Matewan, attended by Sayles and other cast and crew from the film. In 2018, the state’s Blair Mountain, the site of the largest armed labor uprising in national history, was added to the National Register of Historic Places after a years-long struggle against Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources to have it listed. That same year, a nine-day strike shut down West Virginia schools and made national news as teachers demanded better benefits and pay. Teachers in Mingo county, where Matewan is located, were the first to walk out.

And, of course, every spring, the Felts keep getting themselves killed in West Virginia.

Somewhere, Sid Hatfield just might be smiling.