Matewan (1987)/Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

Directors: John Sayles/Barbara Kopple

One Punch, Twice the Damage: Double Bill Blogathon

Four Hours of Hard Labor You’ll Love!

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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!”

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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.

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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 matewan3.jpgexploiters—“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.

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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.

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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.

  • Gautam spoke:
    22nd/10/2007 to 4:01 pm

    Thanks for the great contribution Marilyn! A truly original idea and very well written. My first impression was something else, but after the read this combination sounds very interesting. I would probably not watch either of the films on their own but put together back-to-back, I like the idea. Perhaps this is the real charm of the Double-Bill.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/10/2007 to 4:25 pm

    Thanks, Gautam. I really appreciate your hosting of this blogathon. I love these things.
    I have had a long interest in the labor movement, so these are a couple of my favorites, especially Harlan County U.S.A., which I feel is the best American documentary ever made.
    I’m curious as to what you thought I was going to do and what about these films normally would not appeal to you?

  • Gautam spoke:
    23rd/10/2007 to 6:52 am

    Marilyn- When I first read the line: the Labour movement Double Bill, I frankly expected a comic take on labor movement cinema (partly owing to my own unfamiliarity with these two films and a number of unusual double-bills in the blogathon so far). But it was delightful to see a serious post on a rare topic.
    As for your second question, perhaps I feel a little distant from the topic of these films because I’m not aware to the labour movement in the U.S.A. and the importance of it (I live in India). But my thirst for cinema is far reaching and I had previously enjoyed watching the Working class cinema of 1960s Britain, which in turn got me interested in exploring the working class culture of that age in that country. So given a chance- yes! I would surely love to watch these two films (even better back-to-back). After all Cinema is Cinema.
    I believe there is something fascinating about every film and so far I had never walked out of a film midway (not even Bulletproof Monk!).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/10/2007 to 9:01 am

    I had not realized you were located in India! I must have missed that while going over your website.
    If you are familiar with Dam/Age, directed by Aradhana Seth, you’ll have a feeling for the tone of Harlan County U.S.A. Even though Dam/Age centers around Arundhati Roy and a different type of struggle, so much of that film resonates with Barbara Kopple’s handling of the strike. I really loved Dam/Age, and it might give you an emotional way into these films of the American labor movement.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    23rd/10/2007 to 1:01 pm

    Marilyn,
    These are two great movies, each one among the best of its decade. I was glad to see you highlight Harlan County, USA as I agree it is an incredible documentary and often overlooked in this era of splashier docs where the personality of the director becomes the central focus. And I’ve always loved Matewan, John Sayles’ best work in my opinion. Great job!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/10/2007 to 1:31 pm

    Hi Jonathan, and thanks for stopping by. Obviously, I agree with you (and about a certain “documentarian” with the initials MM). Surprisingly, too, in the case of the Sayles movie. He’s always been a real hit-and-miss director for me. I really find Harlan County U.S.A. illuminates Matewan for me. Just when I think Sayles is exaggerating, I find a reference in Harlan County that shows Sayles didn’t go far enough. Obviously, Joe Kenehan is a bit of a mythic figure, but Cooper still made me believe.

  • Gautam spoke:
    24th/10/2007 to 10:41 am

    Marilyn- Sadly I didn’t have the chance to see Dam/Age, though it really turned heads here. Apparently it was shown on Indian television. It feels good when good cinematic work comes out of India, it is such a breath of fresh air!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/10/2007 to 11:07 am

    I’ve only seen one film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Shadow Kill, review somewhere on this site), but I’m hungry for more. It was superb.
    Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room is in my top 20 favorite films.

  • Ferdy on Films, etc. spoke:
    27th/12/2007 to 2:04 pm

    My Year at the Movies – 2007

    My Year at the Movies—2007 By Marilyn Ferdinand Now that my good friend and collaborator, Roderick Heath, Esq., has seen fit to write one of those bloody year-end wrap-ups—third in my rogue’s gallery of things I wish reviewers would…

  • Ricky Sams spoke:
    30th/07/2008 to 1:54 pm

    thanks great site both my papas work 27 year
    throughout Kentucky from BARDO TO CAWOOD,YANCY
    AN A BUNCH MORE THEY WERE lucky an came north
    to go To work for GM IN 1962 WHERE they were also involved in the UAW STRIKES OF THE late 60’s
    an early 70’s
    Ricky Sams proud to be a coalminers Grandson

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/08/2008 to 8:31 am

    Thanks for commenting, Ricky. I’m proud to have a coalminer’s grandson reading my site and complimenting this review. It means a lot to me.

  • Ken Avin spoke:
    25th/07/2009 to 11:48 pm

    Marilyn,
    Thank you for sharing on Harlan County USA. I have loved this film since I first saw it in the wee hours of the morning while battling insomnia from my treatment for multiple sclerosis back in 2000. I taped it back then, then found it on vhs (in the dollar bin, no less)and later bought it on dvd. I have since given away my taped copy, the vhs I purchased(to my father who LOVED it after I shared it with him over a bottle of whiskey one night), and 4 copies I have owned on dvd and loaned to folks who loved it so much, I told them to keep it. I just watched(tonight) my newest copy I got back in February(5th one I’ve bought) that is the Criterion release that has alot of extras. I was also glad to find that a soundtrack had been released on cd, so I just went to Amazon and bought that (maybe I am obsessed??). I just wanted to say, as a lover of all kinds of documentaries, and a novice script writer and film maker myself, I believe that Harlan County USA is one of the Best films made , ever. It crosses all genres, I believe, and should be required viewing for all film lovers. I have not seen Matewan, but the extras on the HC verion I watched tonight had an interview with that director, so its next on my list. Sorry this is so long, but I wanted to thank you for spreading the word of this great film, and turning me on to another one. Thank You and Take Care.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/07/2009 to 9:39 am

    Kevin, Thank you. It is my pleasure. I personally think that Harlan County, U.S.A. is the best documentary ever made. For once, the Academy Awards got it right and awarded Barbara Kopple the statue in her year. I have had the chance to meet Kopple, and she is a humble, intelligent, and still-curious human being. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Ferdy on Films, etc. spoke:
    3rd/12/2009 to 12:29 pm

    Professor Russell Johnson’s “My Ancestors Came Over on the Minnow” Thanksgiving/Christmas Movie Quiz

    Professor Russell Johnson’s “My Ancestors Came Over on the Minnow” Thanksgiving/Christmas Movie Quiz By Marilyn Ferdinand Time again for one of Dennis Cozzalio’s three-hour tours, aka, holiday movie quiz. This one was a doozy, with 50 questions. 1) Se…

  • Roger spoke:
    15th/01/2010 to 10:04 am

    Perfectly matched double bill. Two outstanding films, both of which capture a story that most of us cannot come close to relating to but that needs to be told. Had seen Matewan years ago and revisit it regularly, just saw Harlan County for the first time. Possibly a third addition to this bill could be the film October Sky, with Kathy Mattea’s “Coal” CD providing music at the intermission.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/01/2010 to 10:31 am

    Roger – Thanks for the thumbs up (I know you’re not THAT Roger) on this and for stopping by.

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