Director in Focus: John Sayles – Matewan


Matewan (1987, dir. John Sayles)

Starring Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe, Will Oldham

Continuing my look at the work of John Sayles, we move to this historical drama set amidst the conflict between miners and the coal company in 1920. The miners of the Stone Mountain Coal Company in West Virginia walked out of the mines and off the job after the company cuts their pay when rumors of a union begin. The miners call in Joe Kenehan (Cooper), a well-known union organizer who encourages non-violent resistance. Kenehan is in fact a fictional creation of Sayles, first appearing in his 1977 novel Union Dues. The character has been held up as a cherished symbol and even has a union devoted to health care workers in Washington state named for him. Kenehan lodges in the home of Elma (McDonnell), a miner’s widow and mother to a young preacher (Oldham). Kenehan is forced to try and temper the striking workers as the company brings in Italian immigrant and African-American replacements.
The concept of “union” is deeply emphasized throughout the film. The native striking miners attack the replacements when they are brought in and it takes Kenehan’s convincing for them to realize that workers are all united against the management. As a foil to Kenehan, we have Sheriff Sid Hatfield (Strathairn) who at first appears to be an antagonist but is later revealed to truly be working for the citizens. When the Company sends men to repossess the mattress and furniture of striking miners’ families, Hatfield steps in and unflinchingly threatens the thugs.
The film serves as a prelude to the larger war between workers and the coal companies that followed in the 1920s. While not widely reported or truly documented in most history books, thousands of workers took up arms against the legalized slavery being forced on them by companies across the Southeast. One incredibly telling scene comes early on, as the African-American miners are introduced to the company story and informed that from their pay they will have all equipment or clothing used in the mine deducted, their room and board deducted, their trip in a cattle car by rail deducted, and will be paid in company scrip, not cash. For most people working above minimum wage it’s hard to imagine being held in such a tight choke hold by an employer.
Sayles is a strong filmmaker, he’s no Kubrick, overly stylistic visual flourishes are not his forte. Instead, he is comfortable letting characters slowly reveal themselves and to allow quiet moments to linger in his work. It’s a style of filmmaking that doesn’t explode out at the viewer, but feels more long-lasting than a flash in the pan special effects picture.
Next up in Director in Focus: John Sayles – Men With Guns
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