Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 15 min.
Our content rating (0-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…
Isaiah 61 & Luke 4
St. Peter, don’t you call me, cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”
“Sixteen Tons,” as sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford
I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary, the evil is permanent.”
Mohandas K. Gandhi
Although I love all of independent director John Sayles’ films, this history based film remains my favorite—and the other all range from good to excellent. Although the main character, a union organizer, is fictional, several of the other characters in the story are historical—the mayor and the town constable, and even the leader of the group of black miners with the odd name of “Few Clothes” is based on a combination of real people.
Matewan, a small coal town in West Virginia, was the site of a great clash between striking miners and owners in the 1920’s. The film opens just before that battle with shots of a group of black miners on a train arriving in the little town The Stone Mountain Coal Company has misled a group of blacks, headed by “Few Clothes” (James Earl Jones), into coming to work in the mines alongside the Italians, who have also been hired as “scabs.” Joe Kenehan rides into town on the same train carrying the black miners, except he is in a passenger car, whereas the blacks in keeping with the custom of those prejudiced times, ride in a freight car. Joe’s mission is to organize the strikers into a union able to withstand the power of the owners and the state government.
Joe knows there is power in unity, but the striking West Virginians hate the Italians who had replaced them because they are “scabs,” and for racial reasons they hate the newly arrived African Americans. Led by Few Clothes, the blacks refuse to go to work when they learn that the jobs they were promised when they were in the South were scab jobs. While Joe is at a secret meeting with the West Virginians, Few Clothes shows up, much to the displeasure of the whites. When a miner calls the black a scab, there is fire in Few Clothes response, “I been called nigger, but I ain’t never been called no scab! I expect the same dollar for the same work.”
Joe challenges the men, telling them, “You’re just a piece of equipment to the company! … You think this man is the enemy? (pointing to Few Clothes) Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain’t a union, it’s a goddam club! They got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world – them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you get to know about the enemy. (pointing to Few Clothes) … There are two side to this world-them that works, and them that don’t! …. ”
After getting the white strikers to accept the blacks, Joe sets out for the equally hard task of both convincing the Italians to join the strikers and getting the native whites to accept the Italians. It is not easy, but they do come together. When the strikers are evicted from their company-owned homes, they all work together to set up a camp. Italians, blacks & whites cut down trees and set up tents. The women chop down underbrush for a clearing. A beautiful musical sequence summarizes this—an Italian picks out a tune from back home on his mandolin. He is joined by two West Virginians, one playing a fiddle, and the other a guitar. Across camp a black man adds his harmonica accompaniment, the result being a fully harmonized song.
Getting the groups to work together soon proves to have been child’s play. The miners are not happy about some of the rules of the union, so Joe tries to get them to see the bigger picture of similar fights for workers rights going on around the country. The men do not buy into this, their concern being just for their own struggle. Also, the coal company has brought in goons to stir up trouble, and so preventing the miners from defending themselves with violence proves the hardest job of all. Joe tries to make them understand that their resorting to violence is just what the mine owners want, because then they can convince the governor to send in the state militia to squash the miners.
The film’s many characters are all fascinating: 15-year-old DannyRadnor (Will Oldham), who is a lay preacher; Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell), Danny’s mother and boarding house operator; town constable Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn), who impresses Joe by his fairness and refusal to play ball with the company goons (he has a great line when he says to the two thugs from the Baldwin-Felts agency, ” I’ve met Mr. Felts. I wouldn’t pee on him if his heart was on fire); “Few Clothes” Johnson (James Earl Jones), the brave leader of the black miners; Danny’s best friend Hillard Elkins (Jace Alexander) who proves to be both brave and resourceful when cornered; Bridey Mae (Nancy Mette) whose lie almost costs Joe his life; and, of course, the company’s thugs, led by Hickey and Griggs (Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp).
Director/writer John Sayles has given us another of his wonderful, unique films (see his Brother From Another Planet, Eight Men Out, and City of Hope), one that explores social justice and violence versus nonviolence. We also see two images of the church–as that of supporter of the status quo (with Sayles himself playing the preacher who brands the strike and union organizer “Bolshevik!”) and as “preaching good news to the poor” and oppressed (in the person of lay preacher Danny). Indeed by the end of the film what we suspect turns out to be true, Sayles has given us another Christ figure, one worthy of laying along side Cool Hand Luke, Billy Kwan (Year of Living Dangerously), Gandhi, or Francis of Assisi. Joe admits to being a “Red,” and has replaced the traditional church with the union (which bestows a similar exalted status on its members), but is committed to an ethic of nonviolence that nothing can shake. When someone close to them is murdered, Daniel and the miners angrily ask Joe, “Do you still want us to turn the other cheek? You still after that big union?” And Daniel adds, “First they come, and we have no land … We got to take care of ourselves!” To which Joe replies, “We got to take care of each other.”
I don’t know how much Joe knew of the Indian leader Gandhi, who at that same time was leading his people in a nation-wide nonviolent revolution, but I am sure he would agree with him that violence cannot bring about lasting social justice.
Note: There is a study guide with 13 questions in my book Films & Faith:40 Discussion Guides, available from Visual Parables’ office in Walton, KY.