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By Ben Cook • September 7th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Cinecom Pictures

Original release: August 28th, 1987
Running time: 132 minutes

Writer and director: John Sayles

Cast: Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham


John Sayles bucks the system. Not in a militant sense, he doesn’t fight it in the way Alex Cox does. They burn brightly but get eaten up or badgered into obscurity. Sayles bucks the system by being in it, he takes what he wants from it and once he’s paid his dues he does whatever the hell he wants to do. In a basic sense he empties it for what they’re worth, cash and contacts mainly, and then is on his way. Cassavetes was the archetype for this model, though Sayles has never rocked the boat in so many outward ways as Cassavetes did. Sayles rocks the boat in such a way that the passengers never notice till he’s gone: Piranha’s toxic waste, eco-system altering government officials, Alligator chewing ‘its way through the socio-economic system’ or The Howling’s satirical mauling of therapy culture. It was always in the films he made with funding from the money that from writing other people’s films that he rocked the boat most openly.

Sayles does character as not many modern American filmmakers do and it’s through his characters that he raises complex ideas and questions about politics, history, race and gender, and more specifically how these areas overlap and blend. Think Joe Morton in Brother From Another Planet, Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodward in Passion Fish, Chris Cooper in Lone Star and as a sprawling ensemble of ideas in City Of Hope. What makes Sayles’ work stand out though is the way these ideas are demonstrated; to quote Henry James, ‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’

It’s a rare blessing that Sayles’ worlds aren’t black and white, questions are asked and answers are rarely clearly defined. These aren’t message movies, they’re debate movies and none more so than Matewan. The film depicts the build-up of events that lead to the battle of Matewan, a gunfight in the town in West Virginia in 1920, between a union of striking coal miners and the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, heavies hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company to break the strike. As in all the best films of its nature it allows debate rather than forcing the opinion from one side or the other and thus allowing us to use it as a prism to view comparable events in different times and places with a similar cool and clear head.


Unionisation is at very best a contentious issue, at very worst an instigator of aggression, the right will blame union barons holding industry to ransom, the left will attack management, their political ties and the underhand tactics used to whittle away at workers’ rights. Matewan, much to Sayles’ credit, doesn’t support the right (an obvious statement if you’re familiar with Sayles’ work) but it isn’t leftwing propaganda either. Like great journalism the film supports the people exploited, subjected and caught between opposing ideologies. I suppose this almost humanistic approach complements Sayles’ value of character perfectly. The character is first and from there all things flow; after all, systems of belief and the events that are caused by them are just extensions and manifestations of our individual experiences and perceptions. So it makes perfect sense to start with character to best explore larger themes.

The clash between Chris Cooper’s United Mine Workers organizer, Joe Kenehan, Josh Mostel’s Mayor Testerman, David Strathairn’s Police Chief Sid Hatfield and Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp, Baldwin–Felts men Hickey and Griggs, is as much the clash between economic systems as it is individuals. The feudal state of the mine owners, who deduct from their employees’ wages the cost of tools, travel and equipment and what little pay remains, is issued as company script (which can only be used in the company owned store), trapping the workers in servitude to the company, and the capitalist system promised by the union men. This striving towards a capitalist worker-employer relationship rather than a socialist one for which unions are often pigeon-holed to be struggling, especially in the decades following the film’s events, is surprising, but ‘Feudalism exists when free people have to work for a single employer, or not work at all. Capitalism, in contrast, allows free people to choose their employers. There’s often in history a struggle between feudal and capitalist structures. The story of the coal miners is the story of one such class. ’ and it is again to Sayles’ credit as filmmaker of varying shades that the workers’ struggle isn’t simplified to one goal.

Terms like socialism and communism were tied to union movements by the former feudal lords when they were forced into being capitalist lords, by a multitude of social and economic change. The rulers then exploited and corrupted the facets of the new system for their own needs, and branding anyone who challenged their hegemony with flashwords like ‘communism’, therefore Matewancorrupting the word too (which leads us into the ruling classes’ hand in media representation of forces opposed to them. See Occupy activists branded as ‘anarchists’, both a misrepresentation of their actions and a misuse of the word). I imagine many of the activists in the major strike acts of the past 100 years were socialists, but not all of them. It’s lazy sloganing, when basic rights like choice, security, equality, safety and the right to be heard are issues that bind all workers. Left, right or somewhere in between.

When black and Italian workers are brought in to replace striking miners, in a ploy that can be read as a classic divide and conquer tactic by the mine owners, the inevitable issues of race are explored. Tensions between groups are rarely political alone but Sayles demonstrates first in a simple line that universal goals unite races as well as beliefs, when James Earl Jones’ ‘Few Clothes’ Johnson says, ‘I’ve been called nigger, and I can’t help that’s the way white folks is, but I ain’t never been called no scab’ and secondly in a beautiful scene where after much cacophony the music played by the different ethnic groups unifies.

Religion, that other strain of conflict, is represented by the opposing preachers in Matewan, the anti-union ‘Hard-Shell’ preacher (played by Sayles) and William Oldham’s pro-union preacher. One represents the opiate-like traits of organised religion as well as the blind comfort it brings, the other the freedom of individual spiritual thought, but also the chaos and conflict this brings. Again it’s the miners who are caught in the middle. Caught between servitude and violence, security and freedom. It’s the preciseness of Sayles’ approach that all these issues are explored and not so much that they mesh perfectly together, but he realizes they’re not separate issues, but different branches of human conflict and struggle.

Ben Cook

Ben Cook

Ben has been in love with cinema from a young age having been introduced to the classic cinema of Capra and Hitchcock by his father and the ‘other’ classic cinema of Carpenter and Cronenberg by Alex Cox late night on Channel 4.

In 2009 with formal training that equated to watching Mean Streets a lot, he co-founded Anti/Type Films. Since then he has written, produced and directed more than a dozen short films and documentaries, as well as writing and performing several scores. It means he gets to travel, which he likes.

He has his own site www.antitypefilms.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter @AntiTypeFilms.

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