This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of film, Matewan, which tells the story of the fight to unionize the southern West Virginia coal fields nearly a century ago. Joel Beeson talks to filmmaker John Sayles about his return to West Virginia, and parallels in his film for Appalachia— and America — then and now.
Q: The film opens with a steam train coming into Matewan that makes a stop outside of town to unload black miners brought in by Stone Mountain Coal Company to replace striking miners. Why did you open the film this way?
A: Well, it was one of the main strikebreaking techniques used by coal companies. They called it the judicious mixture, and it depended on racial division. The mixture was one-third white miners, one-third immigrants – Italians, Polish, or others, and if possible, one-third African Americans who came up from the South. And they lived in separate areas in the coal camps.
The strategy was that these people will not be able to overcome their prejudices to form a union. And the point of the film was that the conditions were so bad they overcame these prejudices. Then they are talking about union with a big “U” where everyone is in it together. But that usually falls apart. It’s the war that brings them together, and when conditions don’t improve, or after the war is over the union falls apart. And then black workers are the ones that mostly get left behind.
Q: When the young preacher, played by Will Oldham, responds to union organizer Joe Kenehan’s statement that “I came to help” by telling him “we’ve had about all the help we can stand” that statement seems to touch on something important about Appalachian identity.
A: Well, it’s a double-edge sword. When people signed the original leases to coal companies – they called them long form deeds – these contracts said they could keep their land. But buried down in the fine print, it basically said that we the coal companies can do whatever we want, including kicking you off your land to get to the coal. We own what’s under the land, and we can tell you to get off. So there’s always a tradeoff.
Take farmers — when the federal government comes in, you might have gone under without that help. This is the back and forth between local control and federal control. But if the Federal government didn’t intervene, we might not have ended slavery, or hastened the end of the Great Depression.
Big Government is a bureaucracy, and just like corporations it’s doing what’s right for their own agenda. For Appalachian people, they’re forgotten because they don’t have the large numbers of votes. Or when there is government support, there’s a master plan that doesn’t take into account what’s happening on the ground.
Q: There seem to be many parallels between the economic, social and political landscape of the WWI era in which this film takes place and our current climate. (Racial tension, disparities in wealth, anti-union right to work laws being passed, etc.) How do you think what happened in Matewan in 1920 can help us understand what is happening in West Virginia and Appalachia today?
A: Some of the impetus for the movie was what started to happen in the Reagan era, where he busted the air traffic controller’s union. He busted the union, and then almost all lost their jobs, but they actually got almost everything they were striking for because most of their demands were about safety, not more money. So it wasn’t about what they were demanding, it was symbolic. Reagan wanted to symbolically bust the unions, strike down labor laws that had given workers certain rights.
The main difference now is that we’ve almost 100 years of anti-union propaganda. Take WalMart, for example, where you have to watch several hours of anti-union videos just to get a job that is almost, but not full time. This is poisoning people’s minds. That’s another 80 or 90 years since 1920. And it’s been fairly successful. This country got the Taft Hartley Act. That meant there would be no national strikes. Now it’s especially hard when we have a service economy. When the coal is in one place you can organize a union. When you send production overseas, it’s hard to have a union.
Q: Making music seems important to the story. In the union miner’s camp outside town, there is a scene in which an Italian immigrant is playing a mandolin alone by a fire, and is joined by two white men playing a fiddle and guitar and then finally a black miner blowing a harmonica. Can you talk about that scene?
A: I think that culturally in a divided America where people have first mixed is in sports and music. There has been a color line, for example, Billy Holiday couldn’t perform in the South. But later, when Chuck Berry played, they put up a rope to separate white and black kids. And if the rope came down, they stopped the concert. But as they say, if you can play, you can stay. If you could play the music, play the game, then this guy can come onto the field. And it didn’t matter if your skin was black or white. And they say that in baseball and in jazz.
There’s a baseball scene later in the movie. Despite people in power using race and difference to divide people, it’s one of the main ways our culture has moved forward. A generation of white kids wanting to be Michael Jordan. Often people get ahead of the politics – and let’s hope so, sometimes the politics are retrograde. It’s something to see right-wing NFL football owners having to get out on the field to kneel in solidarity with their players.