Thus spoke labor organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) to the coal miners of Matewan, in 1920, when he came there to form a union. Not a more perfect union, but a patchwork which could somehow stand up to the merciless exploitation of the Stone Mountain Coal Company that owned everyone and everything in the tiny West Virginia town. Can the organized miners refuse their bodies to the bosses and their souls to the Company Store?
MATEWAN (pronounced MATE- WON) chronicles with power one of those innumerable, tragic labor-capital confrontations that dot the historical map of the first part of our century. The film is based on fact but Sayles has deliberately chosen to treat it both realistically and in naive-folkloric fashion, like the unsophisticated laments by blue grass balladeer Hazel Dickens which punctuate the movie with piercing simplicity.
The Company lowers the miners' pay while importing outside workers. Joe Kenehan --conceived as kissin' kin to the legendary Joe Hill - has understanding, persistence and a sweet, dedicated idealism. Not only does he unite his miners, he also manages to override their suspiciousness and racism. He forms a front of solidarity between the locals and the imported outsiders, helpless Southern Blacks and immigrant Italians who join the West Virginians. All this in spite of the Company's strong-arm methods. Its Pinkerton-like Agency sends in two city-slick, strike-breaking goons ( Tighe and Clapp) who commandeer rooms at the home of Elma, a miner's widow...
Writer-director Sayles has created something that is unusual these days: a populist film on an adult subject, made in the old-fashioned way of straight good versus straight evil, but informed by modern sensibility and filmmaking techniques. MATEWAN is fascinating because it is much like a genre film, like a gangster movie or a western, while at the same time it also harks back to the movies of Frank Capra and their celebration of the little people --with two big differences: Sayles' vision is much darker than Capra's, and, unlike Capra or genre movies, he stresses the collective more than the individual. It is the problem that counts more than the people--though, at the same time, there is no lack of single portraits. The son of Elma (at whose home Joe stayed until the Agency goons supplanted him) is a precocious, eloquent, 15-year lay preacher as well as a miner who uses the Bible as a support for unionizing. The local cop is a cleverly ambiguous figure whom one expects to show venality and side sooner or later with the Company, but who in fact turns out to be like The Good Sheriff. The biggest name in the movie's cast, James Earl Jones (as Few Clothes, ) sensitively sketches out a Black whose risk-taking as a union man in a white-dominated society is infinitely greater than the others'. The two Agency men are badness incarnate : their gross, violent and insulting sadism may remind you of Lee Marvin's portrayal of Liberty Valance; in Elma's home they act like those paranoid killers who take hostages as well as in the way rabid Nazis later would behave toward their victims when occupying defeated countries. All the performers are excellent in this film.
There may be manicheism at work here, but its astute of John Sayles to have opted in part for the simplicity of early movies in a work set in 1920. We should not object either to this stylization any more than we resist the polarization between good and bad guys in Westerns; in fact we have infinitely better documented, historical proof of the inhumanity and greed of companies and of the savagery of strike-breakers than we do of cowboy villains and heroes.
Sayles is a triple-threat artist: he writes, directs, and acts. (He appears briefly in MATEWAN, almost unrecognizably made up as a a preacher who thunders against the Reds.) Sayles brings superior credentials to his film. He knows his America from experience and from minute research. A graduate of Williams College, he roamed this country as a meat packer, a day laborer, and a hospital orderly. He wrote prize-winning novels: from his second one, UNION DUES, MATEWAN is partly derived. Sayles, as a screenwriter, first worked for Roger Corman's factory of quickie pictures before producing other scripts and later directing his own movies, all of which deal with social problems: THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN, LIANNA, BABY IT'S YOU, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET. In MATEWAN he has a formidable ally, the socially committed cinematographer (and occasional director) Haskell Wexler who shot this picture in muted, natural hues, naturally lit and imparted the right look to a low-budget film.
Parts of MATEWAN are left unspoken and unshown, until the film's progress sorts them out for you. There are many good ellipses, which are in harmony with the unloquacious nature of the West Virginians. When Sayles uses the old device of a purloined letter for a multi-level operation (a real traitor presents Joe as an infiltrator and almost succeeds in having him executed) the melodrama of those sequences is balanced by the exemplary terseness of the aftermath.
The wonder of this movie is that it keeps up its edge-of-the-seat suspense
throughout its 132 minutes without exhausting you, partly because there
are slow interludes, but even those are laden with tension. Anything could
happen at any moment. Near the end, the Company brings in several armed
strike-breakers and the odds shift even more against the miners. You pray
that outside help might help the oppressed. Saviors, like The Magnificent
Seven, do not materialize, but there is a terrific, Western-style shootout
that does filmmakers like John Sturges, Sam Peckinpah or John Ford proud.
At the same time, MATEWAN, directly or peripherally, is in good company:
that of STRIKE!, HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A., UNION MAIDS, THE MOLLY MAGUIRES
and even parts of MODERN TIMES. MATEWAN is certainly one of the best all-American
movies of the year. To miss it is to turn one's back on a crucial chapter
of our history.