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Matewan Movie Review

coal sayles john miners

Matewan is the sort of picture that illustrates why independent film production is so necessary. John Sayles wrote the screenplay in the ‘70s, but no Hollywood studio was remotely interested in making a movie about a real-life massacre in which a dozen coal miners were murdered in West Virginia during the ‘20s. Sayles made it anyway, and it is among the most powerful works of his memorable career. Ah, Hollywood studios; how could any hotshot iceberg turn down a script with lines like these: “You want to be treated like men? You want to be treated fair? Well, ya ain't men to the coal company, you're equipment. They'll use you till you wear out or break down or you're buried 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.” Chris Cooper is labor organizer Joe Kenehan, who tries to form a union in Mingo County, West Virginia. The threatened coal company then hired the Baldwin Felts detective agency to evict the coal miners from their homes. The agency had previously carried out an illegal 1914 eviction order in Colorado where gunmen murdered 20 people, including a dozen women and children who were burned alive. The eviction order was just as illegal in Mingo County, and Police Chief Sid Hatfield (David Straithairn) and the coal miners knew it. Hatfield became a hero to the coal miners by killing agency gunmen Al Felts (Frank Hoyt Taylor), but it didn't stop the massacre. Moreover, Hatfield himself was murdered (with his wife watching) by agency gunman C.E. Lively (Bob Gunton) within 15 months of the Matewan massacre. This harsh, brutal historical incident was little remembered by anyone outside the UMWA until Sayles and his brilliant cast and crew made this film. A movie like Matewan should be as important to motion-picture history and our understanding of U.S. history as The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps, over time, it will be.

1987 (PG-13) 130m/C Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, William Oldham, Kevin Tighe, David Strathairn, Jace Alexander, Gordon Clapp, Mason Daring, Joe Grifasi, Bob Gunton, Jo Henderson, Jason Jenkins, Ken Jenkins, Nancy Mette, Josh Mostel, Michael B. Preston, Maggie Renzi, Frank Hoyt Taylor; Cameos: John Sayles; D: John Sayles; W: John Sayles; C: Haskell Wexler; M: Mason Daring. Independent Spirit Awards ‘88: Best Cinematography; Nominations: Academy Awards ‘87: Best Cinematography. VHS, LV, Closed Caption

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