- Interview by
- Matthew Byrd
John Sayles is one of the more quietly successful independent filmmakers of the past forty years, translating the ruminative nature and winding rhythms usually associated with novels onto celluloid with films such as The Return of the Secaucus 7, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Lone Star. Sayles has crafted one of the most politically infused filmographies of his generation, bringing an explicitly left-wing framework — without sacrificing nuanced characterization or dramatic verve — to topics as varied as immigration and racial identity in The Brother From Another Planet, class relations in Baby It’s You, and the crimes of US empire in Men With Guns and Amigo.
Near the top of the list sits Matewan, Sayles’s 1987 fictionalization of the 1920 Matewan Massacre — a gun battle between striking coal miners and Baldwin-Felts agents representing the coal company in Matewan, West Virginia that left ten dead. The incident — occurring amid a wave of labor militancy among the state’s coal miners — triggered a series of events that led to the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed labor revolt in US history.
Starring Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham, and David Strathairn, Matewan stands alongside Salt of the Earth, Norma Rae, Sorry to Bother You, and The Killing Floor as one of the few unambiguously pro-labor American films. It also happens to be spectacular.
With the film entering the Criterion Collection in 2019 and the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain coming up this summer, Sayles talked to Jacobin about Matewan, the intersection of race, religion, and unionism, and the current state of independent film.
When did you first hear about the Matewan Massacre, and when did you first conceptualize the film after hearing about it?
I hitchhiked across the country a lot in the late sixties, early seventies. I think it was on my first hitchhiking trip through Kentucky and West Virginia. I got a lot of rides from coal miners and former coal miners, and it was right during the runoff for the head of the [United Mine Workers, UMW] between Tony Boyle and [reform candidate] Jock Yablonski.
Guys were just shaking their heads and saying, “Woah we got a lot of trouble and a lot of contention within the ranks and this might get as bad as the Matewan Massacre.” (Eventually Tony Boyle had Jock Yablonski and his wife and daughter murdered.)
And I asked a bit about the Matewan Massacre and then tried to do research on it. There was very little written at the time, but I was able to piece together the actual history, and then you fictionalize things. So, I took things that were happening in other mines in the region, particularly with the ethnic makeup, and added them to the story. It was really that thing of, “How come I’ve never heard of the Matewan Massacre?”
Chris Cooper’s character, Joe Kenehan, is the first open socialist that I can remember seeing on film. He’s a former Wobbly, spent time in jail for opposing the First World War, and even jokes that he’s a red who “carries little round bombs, like in the newspapers.” What drove you to center Matewan on a red?
There’s a classic thing that happens in Westerns where a stranger comes to town, and I was interested in playing with that idea: the Shane character comes, and then you find out he used to be pretty good with a gun, but he’s hung it up and then when the shit hits the fan he says, “Well I’ve got to take that gun down from the wall and blow everybody away.”
I was interested in playing with that idea for somebody who was not only an avowed socialist, but a pacifist — because the Wobblies during World War One said, “sabotage the war effort, don’t volunteer, try to get out of it if they draft you.”
And just as I think you have to examine violence, you also have to examine nonviolence: okay, nonviolence worked for Gandhi because he was dealing with the British who, once Gandhi got on the international stage, could be embarrassed.
But nonviolence doesn’t necessarily work with Baldwin-Felts.
Yeah, and if Gandhi had been in Germany, we never would have heard of him. He’d just be another guy they killed right away.
So, these are complex things, and I felt like, “Well I want the guy to have principles” and they’re not just his personal principles. He belonged to things. He’s trying to get people to join a union. He’s trying to get them to belong to something. He wasn’t just a union rep: he’s somebody who has politics beyond just syndicalist, local union politics.
I was struck when rewatching the film by how prominent a role religion plays in it. You play a preacher who gives a pretty fiery denunciation of the union as essentially the providence of godless communists. Yet at the same time you have Italian immigrants prominently displaying Catholic iconography in their work camp tents and Danny — the child preacher and miner played by Will Oldham — using biblical parables to make sense of the union’s moral purpose to himself and the larger community. Can you talk about the role religion plays both in the film and the real-life Mine Wars?
Having gone through Kentucky and West Virginia a bunch of times, you just notice how many churches there are. It’s a big organizing principle for people. It’s where they come and meet. It’s about the way they look at the world.
And if you’re fundamentalist, you’re pretty determinist, and your interpretation of the bible doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for union activity or activity in this world in general. You’re supposed to just grin and bear it and you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife.
Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
Right, and there are other people who take their interpretation and say, “No wait a minute, Jesus was an activist. He threw the money changers out of the temple. We were put on this Earth to make it better.”
Danny’s like that renegade preacher who has just said, “This can’t be right. I’m gonna interpret the Bible the way I’m gonna interpret the Bible.” And at the end he says, “The union became my new religion.” Doesn’t mean he became an atheist, but what he was preaching was, “Our job here on Earth is to make life better for everybody.”
Today, Southern West Virginia where Matewan takes place is often portrayed as an undifferentiated mass of reactionary white male coal miners. This is obviously a crude caricature and a stark contrast to the West Virginia of Matewan, which is something of a racial powder keg, with conflict and uneasy cooperation between African Americans, immigrant Italians, and native-born whites central to the film’s narrative. Can you talk about that powder keg and why you chose to structure the film around it?
Even if workers weren’t trying to unionize the mine, if you were a big owner you tried to keep the union out. And so the idea was a “judicious mixture.” You’d have about one-third local white miners who grew up there in the hills; you’d have about one-third immigrants, some of them from the Balkans, some of them from Greece and Italy and who had never mined coal before in their lives; and then about one-third were African-American miners, either local people or from the mines in Alabama — particularly Bessemer — that had just capped out in the late teens.
These were experienced coal miners, like the character James Earl Jones plays, who were told, “We have jobs for you up in Kentucky and West Virginia.” They were put into boxcars, and doors were nailed shut so that they couldn’t peek out and find out where they were going or what exactly was going on. It was news to almost all of them when they got there that they were being brought in as scabs.
So unlike the population of West Virginia overall, the population of those mining communities was very diverse, for a purpose. In the company housing, they segregated people and put guards in between the black section and the immigrant section, and the local people section. People had to sneak around the guards even to talk to each other. And they often brought each group in on different shifts or brought them into different entrances into the mine, so they wouldn’t even meet each other on the job.
Probably the most famous scene in the film is the first union meeting scene — where Kenehan chastises the racist and nativist attitudes shown by a lot of the miners and makes one of the most strident declarations of solidarity that I can remember seeing on film. How did you craft that sequence?
Racism has always been a problem in American society, including in unions. Kenehan was coming from was this “One Big Union” Wobbly perspective, which is, “look if these people work with you, they’re union members. And this ‘judicious mixture’ thing, is something they’ve done to keep us from forming a union and having any kind of rights at all.”
The only way to beat that is to say, “We’re not going to fall for that shit. Bring in whoever you want, but they’re not going to replace us, they’re going to join us.” So that was a very pivotal scene, and Joe’s an idealist in that way.
It didn’t work in some parts of the UMW, although the UMW really did a pretty good job compared to some unions.
Matewan was released in 1987 amid the rise of the independent cinema movement in the 1980s and ’90s. What do you think of the state of independent film and politically conscious cinema in an era of Marvel, streaming, and media consolidation?
I haven’t raised other people’s money for a movie of mine in fifteen years. And that’s not trying to get a lot of money, that’s trying to get enough just to make a movie.
Matewan cost about $3 million. We’d had a couple of minor art house hits, and it took us a while still. The money fell apart, and then when it came back together it was almost double the amount that we’d thought we would spend.
I think what has changed is, there is no way I or anybody else could raise the equivalent of that kind of money now and have Chris Cooper, who had never been in a movie before, be the lead. I just don’t think that’s happening right now for anybody.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and the state of labor is similar to 1921 in the sense that it is quite bleak but with room for some optimism.
Union density and membership are at historic lows and a fanatically pro-business judiciary seems intent on making labor organizing functionally illegal. At the same time, you have a marked rise in Americans’ opinion of unions paired with a renewed militancy among some workers — including in West Virginia with the 2018 Teacher’s Strike — not to mention the ongoing unionization efforts at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama.
Looking back, what parts of the film and the Mine Wars hold the most contemporary relevance for you?
When I made Matewan, one of the things that inspired me to get into it — because it was a story I had in my head for a while — was one of Ronald Reagan’s first acts as president: busting PATCO, the air traffic controller’s union. Republicans were saying, “We’re going to bust unions, and we’re going to put in judges that are going to help to bust unions.”
I think it’s encouraging that Biden is the first president since Harry Truman to say, “unions are a good thing” and talk about the workers down in Alabama. And I think that the West Virginia teachers’ strike is interesting in that it had to be a wildcat strike. The people who were running their union were legally enjoined from leading that strike — that’s what the judiciary has done under both Democrats and Republicans to the right to strike.
So, an awful lot of strikes in the future are going to have to be wildcat strikes. And, just between you and me, the leadership may say “this is great,” but they can’t say it publicly or they’ll go to jail.