Coal miners, struggling to form a union, are up against company operators and gun thugs; Black and Italian miners, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught between the two forces. Union activist and ex-Wobbly Joe Kenehan, sent to help organize the union, determines to bring the local, Black, and Italian groups together. Drawn from an actual incident; the characters of Sid Hatfield, Cabell Testerman, C. E. Lively, and Few Clothes Johnson were based on real people.
I was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia, and I still visit there as often as I can to see family and friends and to simply feel like I’m home. My upper-middle-class upbringing in the relatively urban capital city of Charleston was a far cry from the poverty and despair of rural, Appalachian coal towns during the early twentieth century. Nonetheless, even in the idyllic environment of my youth, it was easy to see the long-lasting influences, both positive and negative, that the coal industry has had on West Virginia’s people. The movie “Matewan” does a good job of capturing and juxtaposing some of these influences.
From my perspective, the primary benefits that the coal industry has given West Virginia have been economic stability and personal pride. West Virginia is a beautiful state with seemingly limitless mountain forests but very little flat, arable land. The rugged terrain tends to isolate and stagnate the communities in it, both socially and economically. When coal mines started to appear in West Virginia, railroads were built to many small towns in order to haul coal and machinery. This brought in new people, new ideas, and previously unavailable goods, and this all essentially provided the means for these isolated small towns to better interact with the rest of the state and the country. This is a recipe for a sustainable increase in the quality of life for rural Appalachians. West Virginians of the time did not receive the full potential benefit of these new resources, due in very large part to the exploitative practices of big coal companies, assisted by corrupt or inept state and local governments. Nonetheless, as the coal industry in West Virginia has progressed and matured through the twentieth century, I think it has benefited West Virginians more than it has hurt them. (Most West Virginians would probably agree with this statement, but it is important to note that many would not.) When you watch “Matewan,” you will not see many of these benefits – they were not provided to the small towns at that time, which was one of the motivations of the labor unrest of the 1920s (i.e. the setting of the movie).
On the other hand, the negative influences of the coal industry in West Virginia include the death and illnesses of the coal miners, the environmental abuses of the coal companies, and the general victimization of the working class people of the state. “Matewan” vividly illustrates these negative influences in more ways than I can adequately discuss here. This movie describes how miners died in the mines. It shows the lasting effects these deaths had on the families of the miners. It shows how utterly controlled the coal miners were, living in a company town in company houses, shopping at the company store with company money. The movie shows that when the local miners tried to strike for better pay, immigrant Italian and southern African-American miners were brought in to replace them. When all the groups tried to strike, the coal company took strategic steps to incite hatred and violence between the groups of miners, in order to distract attention from the company. The two company strongmen sent to the town to suppress the union are portrayed in the movie as the epitome of evil – they are rude, they insult people, they drink in church while making fun of the preacher, they think nothing of taking someone’s life, and so on. It is interesting that these two company strongmen are portrayed so horribly – it represents a fairly standard opinion that the downtrodden have of their suppressors. The climax at the end of the movie is an all-out gun battle between the coal miners and the company men. This gunfight actually happened; it is referred to as the Matewan Massacre, and it was one of numerous violent conflicts between the people of West Virginia and the coal companies that exploited them.
The victim-victimizer scenario that “Matewan” portrays is set in a coal mining town undergoing a major conflict where death is on the line. However, similar sentiments can be seen across many sectors of the energy industry. One obvious comparison is the modern petroleum industry and how it exploits less-developed countries for their oil. I suspect that a young Iraqi or Nigerian would view international oil companies similarly as a 1920s West Virginia coal miner viewed the coal companies. A less riveting comparison would be a homeowner in American suburbia feeling victimized by the utility company that wants to run a high-energy electricity transmission line or natural gas pipeline next to their property. In all of these cases, the onus is on the energy industry to be sure it is doing business in an ethically sound manner, because any individual victims have limited power to stop the large energy companies.