Sunday, October 02, 2005

Review: Matewan

John Sayles’ historical drama Matewan tells the story of an early effort to unionize the West Virginia coalfields, culminating in a fierce gun battle which has since become legendary and forever marked this tiny area of Appalachia as “bloody Mingo.” This account of violent labor strife takes place in 1920 Mingo County, West Virginia, where local coal miners, tired of being treated as “equipment” rather than men by the Stone Mountain Coal Company, go out on strike and ultimately find themselves facing hostility not just from the coal company and its gun thugs, but also from local religious forces, the community, and imported scabs.

While its overriding theme is that of organized labor, Matewan also features the themes of racial and ethnic conflict and the balance of fundamentalist Appalachian religion and outside progressive political movements. Perhaps most interesting in Sayles’ treatment of this balance between religion and politics is that it is seen and relayed via flashback through the eyes of a boy who stands on the fault line, representing both sides. Although only a young teen, Danny Radnor works as a miner and fully supports the strike and the Union, but also promotes his evangelical faith by training as a gospel-preaching prodigy.

The obvious questions that arise with the discussion of Matewan are how the secular world of organized labor and the sacred world of traditional Appalachian religion collide, and how the unionizing of workers might be a departure from the teachings of the fundamentalist church. To take on such an assessment, one must first understand what it is about the act of labor unionizing that is in direct conflict with the church. This is where an understanding of politics, history, religion, and Appalachian culture are all necessary.

Although the setting of this story is well before communism takes on the significance that it evolved into in post-World War II America, the roots of this union – church conflict lie in what is represented by the leftist political ideas of communism. This is made clear during the film through Joe Kenehan, the outside labor organizer who was referred to as a “red” and openly divulged his lack of religious belief. Labor unions, although practicing many lessons of the church, are secular, worldly, modernist, non-conformist, and distinctly non-religious in their very existence, while the church clearly promotes the idea of conformity, traditionalism, and subservience.

The coal company represents the conformity and traditionalism of the church, particularly when one considers the aspects of the townspeople being forced to live in company homes and to use only company script for purchases. Likewise, it might be a stretch to suggest that Joe Kenehan represents Jesus Christ, but he clearly becomes a martyr for the cause of the union, and the fact that he faces his own “Judas” in a company spy planted as a striking miner only adds to the overtly religious theme. Although it isn’t addressed quite as overtly as the theme of religion, racism and tolerance play important roles which equally challenge the conformity and traditionalism of Appalachian culture and religion.

As the striking miners are forced to deal with Black and Italian immigrant scabs looking for work, the modernist and worldly elements of the union force the local miners to accept those previously unaccepted and marginalized groups, which similarly is in direct contrast to the cultural and religious elements of the 1920 representation of Appalachia. In Sayles’ handling of the clash between politics and religion, he clearly seems to paint a sympathetic picture of the strikers while showing the coal company in a negative light. This, however, is the tragic story of “bloody Mingo” and the violent history of organized labor’s infiltration of the coal industry in Appalachia. The treatment of fundamentalist religion, the illumination of mountain poverty, and the use of traditional mountain music all combine to make Matewan a distinctly Appalachian film.