Matewan (Mining Movie – 1987)

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Matewan (1987) is an American drama film written and directed by John Sayles, illustrating the events of a coal mine-workers’ strike and attempt to unionize in 1920 in Matewan, a small town in the hills of West Virginia.[1]

Based on the Battle of Matewan, the film features Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe and Will Oldham.


It was 1920 in the southwest West Virginia coal fields, and, as the narrator recalls, “things were tough.” In response to efforts by miners to organize into a labor union, the Stone Mountain Coal Company announces it will cut the pay miners receive, and will be importing replacement workers into town to replace those who join the union. The new workers are African Americans from Alabama and are coming in on the train, but the train is stopped outside town and the black men are told to get off. Derided as “scabs”, they are then attacked by the local miners, but manage to get back on the train and continue their journey.

Witnessing the attack is Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), a passenger on the train and an organizer for the United Mine Workers. He arrives in Matewan and takes up residence at a boarding house run by a coal miner’s widow, Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell), and her 15-year-old son, Danny (Will Oldham), who is also a miner and a budding Baptist preacher.

As Danny goes to preach that night at the Missionary church (the hardshell congregation, headed by an anti-union minister, played by John Sayles), Kenehan goes to meet the miners, who quiz him on his bona fides (where is Joe Hill buried, what eye is Big Bill Haywood blind in, etc.). Kenehan says he was once a member of the “Wobblies” and wins the tentative confidence of the men. One of the black miners, called Few Clothes, bravely comes to meet the union men and declares that while he can not help it if white people call him a “nigger”, he takes vigorous exception to being called a “scab”. Kenehan then explains to the local miners that accepting the blacks and the Italian miners is what the union is all about. If all the men are united and refuse to work, the company will not be able to operate, he says.

Kenehan and the local leader, Sephus, then go around to meet the rest of the black miners as well as the contingent of Italians and try to bring them into the union, and are met with reluctance. But later, caught between the company’s guns and the local miners, the blacks and the Italians throw down their coal shovels and take up the union cause. C. E. Lively, an agent provocateur for the coal company who has infiltrated the union, tries to goad the miners towards violence, which Kenehan says will only weaken their cause. The infiltrator also pens a note to the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, which provides armed agents as strike breakers to the coal company, saying there is a “Red” organizer in town.

The next day, two Baldwin-Felts men, Hickey and Griggs, show up in town and take up residence at the Radnor boarding house. Danny at first refuses to give rooms to Hickey and Griggs, but Kenehan voluntarily moves to the hotel, freeing up a room for the two men and averting trouble for Mrs. Radnor. Hicky and Griggs then start their campaign against the union by forcibly evicting miners from company-owned houses in town. Mayor Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield refuse to let them be evicted without eviction writs from Charleston. Hatfield deputizes all the men in town and tells them to go home and come back with their guns.

The Baldwin-Felts men then turn their attention on the strikers’ camp outside town, where the miners and their families are living in tents. At night, the armed strikebreakers fire shots into the camp, injuring some strikers. The next day, they enter the camp to demand that all food and clothing purchased at the company store with scrip be turned over to them. But then some armed foothill people, whose land was taken by the coal company, enter the camp. Expressing disdain for the noise caused by the gunmen’s automobile the night before, their presence and sympathy for the miners compels the Baldwin-Felts men to leave empty handed. One of the hill people was carrying a caplock rifle and when asked mockingly by a departing Baldwin-Felts agent if it was a relic from The Spanish American War, he replied, “Nope, War Between the States”.

The slow arrival of the union’s thinly stretched strike funds tests the patience of Danny and other miners who become disillusioned and turn to violence in spite of Kenehan’s warnings. The miners are involved in a night-time shootout with the agents and Sephus is wounded. He is rescued by some hill people but not before he recognizes Lively as the infiltrator.

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