Directors: John Sayles/Barbara Kopple
Four Hours of Hard Labor You’ll Love!
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Gautam Valluri’s Double Bill Blogathon is a wonderful idea, particularly for the film geek community. I don’t know how many times I wished I had my own theatre so that I could show the double bills I’ve paired in my head. I have to admit, however, that like my taste in films, my double bills are more offroad than not.
The typical double bill would feature horror films, actioners/thrillers, or weepy women’s pictures—but not for me. I feel fairly confident that the pairing I am suggesting is the only labor movement double bill in history. Interestingly, these films have been linked far longer than my consideration here. The director of Matewan, John Sayles, instructed his cast and crew to view Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County U.S.A. to gain an understanding of the struggle to certify union locals in the coal-mining industry. It’s clear that although the Matewan Massacre occurred in 1920, and Harlan County U.S.A. documents a Kentucky coal strike that took place in the early 1970s, nothing much had changed for American coal miners.
Matewan, like Harlan County U.S.A., opens in a coal mine. The rigors of mining with shovel, pick axe, and bare hands are captured in the moody cinematography of Haskell Wexler, who garnered an Oscar nomination for his work on this film. Switch to a train and a passenger we come to learn is Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He has been asked to come to Mingo County, West Virginia, to organize the miners working for the Stone Mountain Mining Company, referred to throughout the film as “The Company.”
The train stops outside of town, and a group of black miners brought in by The Company to work in place of the striking miners are told to get off. A large and older miner called “Few Clothes” Johnson (James Earl Jones) asks why they aren’t being taken into town. The Company guards tell him to shut up. At that moment, a group of striking miners run out of the woods and attack the scabs with rocks, sticks, and fists. This is a taste of what they can expect if they try to help break the strike.
When the train pulls into Matewan, Kenehan gets off and is greeted by Bridey Mae Tolliver (Nancy Mette), a young woman with not much to do but watch the trains come into town since her husband was killed in a mine collapse. Joe says he’s looking for the boarding house. Bridey Mae says it’s run by Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell) a real “sourpuss.” As Joe takes his leave, he says, “See you later.” Bridey Mae sighs as she watches him walk away and says, “I sure hope so!”
Elma, also a coal miner’s widow, runs the Company-owned boarding house where she lives with her mother (Ida Williams) and son Danny (Will Oldham), a teenage miner and budding preacher. Although worried about trouble, she rents Joe a room, and soon they become friends and confidantes. The arrangement doesn’t last long, however, when two gun thugs named Hickey (Kevin Tighe) and Griggs (Gordon Clapp) from The Company’s security force, Baldwin-Felts, muscle their way into the boarding house and work by any means necessary to break the strike.
For me, Hickey and Griggs are the nastiest bullies I’ve ever seen in a feature film. They seem like an exaggeration until you meet Basil Collins, a real strikebreaker captured in all his malice in Harlan County U.S.A. They call Bridey Mae “mountain trash” to her face, pull a gun on Danny when he won’t pass the peas at the dinner table, tell Elma she’d be peddling poontang on the side of the road if The Company hadn’t let her run the boarding house, laugh openly in church as Danny preaches a story that reveals a lie they’ve told to divide the miners, and go out on shooting raids against the miners in the otherworldly mountain mists Wexler captures with his camera.
The white miners are loathe to welcome into the union the black miners and Italian immigrants brought in earlier to work the mines. Joe admonishes them: “You want to be treated like men? You want to be treated fair? Well, you ain’t men to the coal company, you’re equipment. They’ll use you till you wear out or you break down or you’re buried alive under a slate fall and then they’ll get a new one, and they don’t care what color it is or where it comes from.” The world to Joe is made up of workers and exploiters—“yes, I guess I am a Red,” he admits one tense night to “Few Clothes”—and workers need to follow a nonviolent path to equality. Preaching cool heads in the county where the Hatfields and the McCoys feuded long and hard is not an easy sell. In the end, gunpowder smokes the sky during the shootout between the Baldwin-Felts gun thugs and Matewan sheriff Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn), mayor Cabell Testerman (Josh Mostel), and striking miners.
Many bloody confrontations between miners and hired thugs would take place over the years, right up to and including the Harlan County strike of 1972. However, it was not Barbara Kopple’s original intention to cover this strike. She originally proposed to focus on the upstart campaign of Arnold Miller and Miners for Democracy, who were attempting to oust UMWA president Tony Boyle after Boyle had been implicated in the murder of his rival for the presidency, Joseph Yablonski, Yablonski’s wife Margaret, and their 25-year-old daughter Charlotte. Kopple, however, went to Harlan County and began a labor of love that would last nearly four years.
Kopple opens the film inside the Brookside mine to capture the difficult and dangerous life of a miner. She also recounts a 1968 explosion and cave-in at the nearby Mannington (Farmington) mine that trapped 78 miners. After a few days’ attempts at rescue, the coal company decided to call off the efforts and seal the mine. The Brookside strike was not over wages, but rather over safety. Rather than negotiate with the striking miners, Duke Power called in the scabs, some of whom were rapists and armed robbers taken from prison specifically to work in the mines.
During the initial 16-month strike, Kopple and her crew lived with the miners, got up before dawn to hit the picket lines, sat in on their meetings, and followed them to Wall Street where they attempted to encourage investors to divest themselves of Duke Power stock. An interesting exchange between one of the strikers and a NYC beat cop was recorded in which the cop told the miner that his “good money” was $2 less an hour than the cop was paid for fairly routine work. The cop was equally incredulous that the miners got no dental coverage.
He might have been further surprised to see the living conditions of the miners. The company-owned housing had no running water or indoor toilet facilities. Kopple shows a girl who has grown too large for the washtub getting a very uncomfortable bath from her mother. The housing in Matewan was positively luxurious by comparison, even the tent city Sayles created for the miners who were thrown out of Company housing. During a press conference, Duke Power official Carl Horn explained to reporters that he had been trying to upgrade “our people. And make no mistake, they are OUR people” to trailer living. The tone is unmistakably like that of a master talking about his slaves. One gets the same impression from Matewan, when the black workers are brought to the mine and told that the cost of everything, including their transportation to Matewan, uniforms, and mining supplies, would be deducted from their pay and that they would be paid in scrip redeemable only at The Company store.
As the strike continues, gun thugs headed by Basil Collins start intimidating the miners and their women, openly holding pistols in their pockets. Eventually, a machine gun is stationed at the usual picket location. One predawn morning, the gun thugs rush the camera crew. A light shines into Collins’ truck, and he is clearly seen pointing his pistol directly at the camera. Kopple’s voice can be heard yelling, “Don’t shoot.” She will still face a beating before the film wraps.
So many fly-on-the-wall moments occur in Harlan County U.S.A.: the fearless Lois Scott inspiring the Brookside wives and yelling “I’m not afraid of you” at Collins, a smuggled microphone and shooting through a cracked door of the county courthouse where a judge is accused of doling out justice only in favor of Duke Power, the inspiring appearance by Florence Reece to sing the song she wrote, “Which Side Are You On?” Matewan mimicks the spontaneous music-making Kopple’s film portrays and includes the haunting songs and voice of Hazel Dickens, a huge contributor of atmosphere and lyrics about the lives of coal miners in both films.
Unions have come under fire and almost been destroyed by the rightist policies of the past 25 years. Given the fatal mining disasters that have occurred in the last century in West Virginia alone, it’s high time to treat yourself to this double feature of Matewan and Harlan County U.S.A. to rediscover what’s good and necessary about unionism.