erik lundegaard

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Matewan (1987)

In the New Yorker a few years ago, noted biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) said the following, which I've carried with me ever since. It's a good lesson for journalists and equivocaters everywhere. Dawkins said, "I think it's important to realize that when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong."

Written by:
John Sayles

Directed by:
John Sayles

Starring:
Chris Cooper
James Earl Jones
Mary McDonnell
David Strathairn
Will Oldham
Nancy Mette
Ken Jenkins
Gordon Clapp
Kevin Tighe

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Cinematography (Haskell Wexler)

Quote:
"I've been called nigger, and I can't help the way white folks is, but I ain't never been called no scab! And I ain't fixin' to start now."

John Sayles is a filmmaker who follows this precept. Throughout his career, from Eight Men Out to City of Hope to Lone Star, he's often shown us two points of view expressed with equal intensity, with, more often than not, one side simply being wrong. Matewan is his strongest, and, ironically, least reductive example of this precept.

The film takes place in 1920s West Virginia, coal country, and it begins in the mines. Danny Radnor (Will Oldham), a 15 year-old whose father died years earlier, sends word that the coal company is bringing down the price of their labor to 90 cents per ton, and there's talk of a strike. A union man, Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), is sent to Matewan to organize the laborers but en route witnesses the miners attacking black laborers — scabs — who have been sent for by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. A group of Italian laborers are also being used as scabs. This sets up the early three-tiered dynamic of the film: the coal company vs. the indigenous white laborers vs. the dark-skinned scabs.

The scabs are the random element, and in the early going they are aligned with the coal company. But the company treats them like they treated the indigenous laborers — like shit — and Kenehan works to overcome the innate prejudices of the white miners. "There ain't but two sides to this world," he tells them in a memorable union meeting. "Them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't." When the blacks and Italians, led respectively by "Few Clothes" Johnson (James Earl Jones) and Fausto (Joe Grifasi), lay down their shovels and side with the union, there's a power shift in the struggle. The power still belongs with the company — they own the land and they're ruthless in exercising their power — but the union at least now has a fighting chance.

Things are complicated by a spy within union ranks, and by the arrival in town of two company men, Hickey (Kevin Tighe) and Griggs (Gordon Clapp), who bully their way into the Radner boarding house (owned by the coal company), and bully those inside. "You do what your pretty momma says," Hickey tells Danny during a tense dinner. Hickey's got a sadistic fish-lipped grin — one imagines sexual perversions lurking within his fat shell — while Griggs is thick and mean and stupid: a classic toady. They are the living representatives of the coal company and have no positives about them; they are the side that's simply wrong. Happily, the mayor (Josh Mostel) and police chief (David Strathairn, playing Sid Hatfield of the Hatfield clan) turn against them, while an attempted murder (or beating) of Joe Kenahan is foiled by the arrival of hill people. But time is on the company's side. They can lose every battle and still win the war.

Meanwhile, Kenahan works to keep the dispirate elements of the union together and non-violent. There is a nice scene at the union camp where Italian mandolin, country fiddle and black harmonica join together. It could have been awful — a backwoods "We are the World" — but Sayles keeps it subtle. There's definitely an idealism here about laborers getting along, but the idealism is weighted with a gritty reality — helped by the unglamorous cinematography of Haskell Wexler. "Few Clothes" Johnson may have joined the union but that doesn't stop him from worriedly mentioning to his black friends, more than halfway through the picture, "You know how white folks is." Jones' performance is a stand-out among many great, unshowy performances. What could have been another Wise Negro role (think Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) is instead a whole human being. "Few Clothes" often looks like the dumbest man in the room, and it's obvious he doesn't have much education, but he knows when he's getting screwed. I could watch an entire movie about "Few Clothes" Johnson.

Matewan is a powerful, wholly American film that has been overlooked by too many. The Best Picture nominees for 1987 were as follows: Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction, Hope and Glory, The Last Emperor (which won), and Moonstruck. I love Moonstruck but I'd take Matewan against any of them.

—January 10, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard