Taglines: It takes more than guns to kill a man.
Mingo County, West Virginia, 1920. Coal miners, struggling to form a union, are up against company operators and the gun thugs of the notorious Baldwin-Felts detective agency. Black and Italian miners, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught between the two forces.
UMWA organizer and dual-card Wobbly Joe Kenehan determines to bring the local, Black, and Italian groups together. While Kenehan and his story are fictional, the setting and the dramatic climax are historical; Sid Hatfield, Cabell C. Testerman, C. E. Lively and the Felts brothers were real-life participants, and ‘Few Clothes’ is based on a character active several years previously.
Matewan is a 1987 American drama film written and directed by John Sayles, and starring Chris Cooper (in his film debut), James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell and Will Oldham, with David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp in supporting roles. The film dramatizes the events of the Battle of Matewan, a coal miners’ strike in 1920 in Matewan, a small town in the hills of West Virginia. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
About the Story
It was 1920 in the southwest West Virginia coal fields, and, as the narrator recalls, “things were tough.” In response to efforts by miners to organize into a labor union, the Stone Mountain Coal Company announces it will cut the pay miners receive, and will be importing replacement workers into town to replace those who join the union. The new workers are African Americans from Alabama and are coming in on the train, but the train is stopped outside town and the black men are told to get off. Derided as “scabs”, they are then attacked by the local miners, but manage to get back on the train and continue their journey.
Witnessing the attack is Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), a passenger on the train and an organizer for the United Mine Workers. He arrives in Matewan and takes up residence at a boarding house run by a coal miner’s widow, Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell), and her 15-year-old son, Danny (Will Oldham), who is also a miner and a budding Baptist preacher.
Kenehan and the local leader, Sephus, then go around to meet the rest of the black miners as well as a contingent of Italians to try to bring them into the union, and are met with reluctance. But later, caught between the company’s guns and the local miners, the blacks and the Italians throw down their coal shovels and take up the union cause. C. E. Lively, an agent provocateur for the coal company who has infiltrated the union, tries to goad the miners towards violence, which Kenehan says will only weaken their cause. The infiltrator also pens a note to the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency, which provides armed agents as strike breakers to the coal company, saying there is a “Red” organizer in town.
Directed by: John Sayles
Starring: Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham, David Strathairn, Ken Jenkins, Kevin Tighe, Gordon Clapp, Jace Alexander
Screenplay by: John Sayles
Production Design by: Nora Chavooshian
Cinematography by: Haskell Wexler
Film Editing by: Sonya Polonsky
Costume Design by: Cynthia Flynt
Set Decoration by: Anamarie Michnevich, Leslie A. Pope
Art Direction by: Dan Bishop
Music by: Mason Daring
Distributed by: Cinecom Pictures
Release Date: August 28, 1987