“MATEWAN tells the story of a bitter 1920 strike in the coal mines of southern West Virginia. The struggle culminates in the Matewan Massacre, a violent (and historically accurate) confrontation in which the town’s mayor, seven armed guards hired by the coal operators, and two miners lost their lives. However, this film does more than chronicle a particularly dramatic episode in American labor history. In the hands of director John Sayles,
MATEWAN offers a meditation on broad philosophical questions rarely confronted in American films: the possibility of interracial cooperation, the merits of violence and nonviolence in combating injustice, and the threat posed by concentrated economic power to American notions of political democracy and social justice.
Although MATEWAN is peopled with actual historical figures – notably Sid Hatfield, the town’s pro-union chief of police and the central protagonist in the massacre – Sayles uses two fictional characters to propel the plot. One is Danny Radnor – a boy preacher, miner, and union supporter – in whose voice as narrator, looking back from fifty years later, the story of Matewan is told. The second is the film’s main character, Joe
Kenehan, a World War I veteran, former member of the Industrial Workers of the World, organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, and committed pacifist…
… unusual among filmmakers, Sayles, an O. Henry Award-winning prose writer, has published a book,
THINKING IN PICTURES, about the making of MATEWAN. Apart from the script itself, which takes up half the volume, the book mostly explains how Sayles financed
MATEWAN… and offers insights about such technical matters as casting, shooting, and lighting. It also tells how Sayles became fascinated with West Virginia’s coal-mining district, its people, and their traditions after hitchhiking through the region in the late 1960s. This experience may help to explain the film’s greatest strength – its evocation of the texture of the miner’s world. Through music, regional accents, and numerous local characters, Sayles successfully creates a sense of the Matewan community. Visually, too, the film is remarkably effective, thanks to Haskell Wexler’s careful and deliberate cinematography. Dramatic as it is,
MATEWAN is not “entertaining” in the conventional sense. With its accented dialogue often difficult to follow and its slow-moving pace, it demands concentration on the part of the viewer, but partly because of this, it succeeds admirably in creating a sense of time and place.
Yet the relentless concentration on the local community,
MATEWAN’s greatest strength, also contributes to its most glaring weaknesses – the absence of context, both historical and political… the Matewan strike [was not] an isolated local incident, as portrayed in the film. Rather, it formed part of a prolonged struggle for unionization that lasted for decades. Unionism in 1920 was hardly new to the miners of southern West Virginia, and it did not require someone coming from outside the community [Joe
Kenehan] to bring its message to Matewan. The region-wide 1912 strike had inaugurated a period of intensely violent struggle between the union and mine owners.
In the years that followed, moreover, the mine workers union, perhaps the most racially integrated labor organization in the nation, succeeded in uniting black and white miners, as well as natives and immigrants. The problem is not that Sayles does not trace these earlier events but that he gives the miners no sense of their own history, forcing them to rely on an outsider for lessons in union organizing and racial tolerance…
…if the house of labor has been transformed since the events depicted in
MATEWAN, the film’s pleas for nonviolence, interracial harmony, and economic justice are hardly irrelevant today. It is sobering to reflect that these ideals seem as utopian to contemporary viewers as when they were propounded by the
I.W.W. and United Mine Workers of America nearly a century ago.”
(PAST IMPERFECT, pages 204 – 207)
FILMS FOR TWO is grateful to Professor Eric Foner for permitting us to excerpt portions of his wonderful essay on
MATEWAN from PAST IMPERFECT: History According to the
Movies. We also extend our appreciation to the book’s editor, Professor Mark C. Carnes, as well as to the book’s publisher Henry Holt and Company.
TRIBUTE TO SENATOR PAUL WELLSTONE –
November’s feature is dedicated to the memory of Senator Paul
Wellstone. Wellstone was born in Washington, D.C. in 1944, to parents Leon and Minnie
Wellstone. His father was a Russian immigrant who was born Leon
Wexelstein; his mother's parents immigrated from the Ukraine. He graduated from the University of North Carolina with a bachelor's degree in 1965, and received his doctorate in Political Science from the University of North Carolina in 1969.
After over 20 years as a Political Science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, Wellstone score an upset victory in 1990, defeating the Republican incumbent to become the Democratic Senator from Minnesota. A committed liberal, Wellstone published
THE CONSCIENCE OF A LIBERAL: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda in 2001.
Wellstone was killed in a plane crash on October 25th, one week before the 2002 elections. In the plane with him were wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, and campaign aides Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy, & Will McLaughlin.
According to the MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE (in its 10/26/02 memorial editorial), Wellstone was “…a son of Russian Jewish immigrants… reared on love of country and faith in its ideal of justice for all. His concern for working families, for human rights, for the well-being of society's most vulnerable, was utterly genuine.”
Photo from the DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE
“Democratic challenger Paul Wellstone waves to his supporters,
as his wife, Sheila, looks on Nov. 7, 1990, in Minneapolis,
after he was projected the winner over Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.”
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author of many highly acclaimed works in American history, notably
RECONSTRUCTION: America’s Unfinished Revolution (which won the Parkman and Bancroft prizes) and
THE STORY OF AMERICAN FREEDOM. One of his most recent books is WHO OWNS HISTORY? (which is also one of his most accessible books for the general reader).
A thought-provoking new book from one of America's finest
History," wrote James Baldwin, "does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do."
Rarely has Baldwin's insight been more forcefully confirmed than during the past few decades. History has become a matter of public controversy, as Americans clash over such things as museum presentations, the flying of the Confederate flag, or reparations for slavery. So whose history is being written? Who owns
In WHO OWNS HISTORY?, Eric Foner proposes his answer to these and other questions about the historian's relationship to the world of the past and future. He reconsiders his own earlier ideas and those of the path-breaking Richard
Hofstadter. He also examines international changes during the past two decades – globalization, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa – and their effects on historical consciousness. He concludes with considerations of the enduring, but often misunderstood, legacies of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. This is a provocative, even controversial, study of the reasons we care about history – or should.
"WHO OWNS HISTORY? offers engaging essays that address significant issues in lucid prose accessible to the general reader as well as students and scholars. Above all, the book carries and conveys what I call 'moral weight,' which is one of Eric Foner's notable gifts as a historian." —Michael
Kammen, Cornell University
* You can find an essay on this film in
For more on John Sayles see Eric Foner’s interview “A Conversation Between Eric Foner and John Sayles” at the beginning of
PAST IMPERFECT, & follow this link to Jan’s CHAT
with his producer/partner Maggie Renzi.