In the 1980s, writer Denise Giardina’s “Storming Heaven” offered a wide-ranging portrait of southern West Virginia’s coal camps, while film director John Sayles’ “Matewan” focused on one of the defining moments in the long-running battle between the state’s coal industry and its workers. One was a novel and the other one was a low-budget movie drama. And yet both storytellers filled a hole in research that professional historians had neglected to cover for more than half a century.
Miners and their family members, who had kept quiet for decades, gradually found the courage to speak out. Since the release of Storming Heaven and Matewan, numerous other books, films and articles have been produced about this important period in the nation’s industrial and labor history.
This riveting history of southern West Virginia’s coal industry eventually caught the eye of a national television network. On Tuesday, Jan. 26, PBS will be premiering a two-hour documentary called The Mine Wars as part of American Experience, the network’s flagship history series. The documentary, based in large part on James Green’s book, The Devil Is Here in These Hills, chronicles the hurdles coal miners in southern West Virginia encountered from 1900, when Mary “Mother” Jones sought to organize the workers, to the early 1920s, when the coal miners went on an armed march to unionize southern West Virginia.
Using mostly photographs and old newsreel, the filmmakers paint a vivid picture of what life was like in southern West Virginia in the early 20th century. They interviewed more than a dozen historians, writers and local miners who put the images into context and provide a variety of perspectives on the skirmishes between coal miners and their bosses.
“There are ways to make a photograph come alive that are very effective and can be very emotional,” Randall MacLowry, the producer and director of the documentary, said in an interview. “The advantage of the photographs that the moving pictures don’t have is that you really get to see the faces of the people. You get brought into them in an intimate way.”
MacLowry uses several photos of Mother Jones, panning up and down and zooming in and out on the pictures as she stands among coal miners. Mother Jones, upon spending some time in southern West Virginia as an organizer for the United Mine Workers, beseeched residents to stop acting like “cringing serfs” and to commit to the UMW. The miners loved “seeing this little old lady out there just kicking butt basically and cussing and carrying on,” Giardina, a West Virginia native, says in the film.
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