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Matewan Poster
Your February 2008 Unrandom Movie Club Results Are In!

Preshow Entertainment: Motown: The '60s

Tagline: It takes more than guns to kill a man.




We watched a wacky concept for a video called MOTOWN: THE '60S. Released on VHS in 1986, the tape featured a selection, sometimes questionable, of Motown songs against visuals of the times. They went year by year through all 10 years. While the footage was kind of cool, the marrying of music to video was sometimes offputting. And the only two vanity credits at the top were "A Gino Tanasescu Film" and "Written and Directed by Gino Tanasescu."


With the help of strong actors, John Sayles made what I believe to be his best movie. I know a lot of you would vote for EIGHT MEN OUT or RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN. And I'm sure someone out there would even vote for his I'M ON FIRE video for Springsteen. But I say it's MATEWAN.

The movie begins with a lone coal miner adjusting the flame on his helmet. He shimmies into a crawlspace, coughing and spitting (what I imagine is blackened saliva) as he loads a charge deep in the mine's wall. He's approached by 14 year old Danny, who informs him that the coal company reduced the tonnage rate of the coal. And since the miners get paid by weight, that's bad. The dynamite's fuse is lit over the title of the movie.

Matewan, West Virginia. 1920. The Stone Mountain Coal Company has sent a couple of thugs to assist in the breaking up of the union which is just emerging in that neck of the woods. And in case you don't think Stone Mountain is evil, well, the black workers they hire as scabs truly owe their soul to the company store (actually called Stone Mountain Company Store). Everything they do and use requires a rental fee that adds up to no take home pay.

Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) arrives in Matewan, WV
Enter Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his first movie), a former member of the socialist Wobblies labor organization that let anyone in as a member, sent by the coal miner's union to get things started. And when I say they let anyone in, I mean blacks and Italian immigrants. That was huge. Kenehan convinces the white workers that they're all in this together, and soon the locals, blacks and Italians all join forces. I suppose that's what the word union means. And while Kenehan's method is peaceful resistance, there is no way this struggle will have a happy ending. MATEWAN is the true story of "The Matewan Massacre."

Elma (Mary McDonnell) and Joe (Chris Cooper)
MATEWAN boasts a cast of actors that shine like diamonds. From James Earl Jones (man, can he act) as "Few Clothes" Johnson, to Danny the boy preacher Will Oldham (currently a recording artist), to Gordon Clapp and Kevin Tighe as Company bullies Griggs and Hickey, to Mary McDonnell's boardinghouse-keeper Elma, and the Laurel & Hardy duo of Sayles reg David Strathairn and Josh Mostel as the sheriff and mayor (though no mention is made in the film, Mayor Sid Hatfield was related to the Hatfield/McCoy fueders a few miles away). Also needing mention, Bob Gunton's turn as restaurateur C.E. Lively and Joe Grifasi as Fausto, the lovable yet righteous Italian coal worker. (Editor's note: Both James Earl Jones and Joe Grifasi were members of my video store around the time this movie played.)

Matewan Showdown

But even stripping away the acting and the photography by Haskell Wexler, MATEWAN is a prime example of storytelling. There's conflict on every level. It's not just Union Vs. Stone Mountain, it's also the inner conflict of whether each group (locals, blacks, Italians) should unionize or not. Because with joining the union, there would certainly be sacrifices made. And some were huge.

And there are some truly riveting scenes, like Danny testifying code in church, or when one of the miners gets caught stealing. There's even a wonderful twist you wouldn't expect in such a straightforward drama. Aside from a couple of scenes that are heavy-handed, there is a simple honesty to the movie. I think that's attractive, and rare.

Sayles (who cameos here as a preacher) is one of the most inspiring filmmakers around. He takes the money he makes writing big movies and makes his own. He is King Indie, always working outside the studio gates. So it's no wonder the story of MATEWAN is about how the working man reacts to the bullying of the studio, errr, I mean, the big coal company.

Rich in Matewan, West Virginia, 1988
When I first saw MATEWAN back in '87, I was so enthralled that on a cross-country trip the following year I made sure I went there for a visit. It is a small town (a few hundred people) that appeared to be made up of the high school and coal mines. I ate at the one eatery I saw called The Chatterbox.
Present Day:  Matewan, West Virginia
A local guy took me around and showed me the bullet holes still in the brick wall. Then I went to the store (not the company store, I was fresh out of scrip) and bought a Matewan tee shirt and sweatshirt. I've since busted out of the tee like the Incredible Hulk, but you may still catch me tooling around Hollywood in my Matewan sweatshirt.

This is not the first coal mining/union movie we've seen in the club. THE MOLLY MAGUIRES, starring Sean Connery, took place a few decades earlier and a few hours north, and had many similar themes, but it was flat and uninteresting. MATEWAN is compelling, with rich characters that you root for and feel for. Having not seen MATEWAN since 1987, I was a bit nervous that it wouldn't hold up, or that my tastes have changed, or more likely that I remembered it as a much better movie than it really was. So I was thrilled to find it every bit as good as I remembered. I really think this is one of those overlooked films that should have achieved "classic" status by now.

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