Thursday, September 8, 2016
September 8, 2016: Cultural Work: John Sayles’ Matewan
[To continue the Labor Day remembrances, for the rest of this week I’ll highlight and analyze images and narratives of work in American literature and culture. Please share texts, images and narratives, or histories and issues you’d highlight for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll do work!]
On when subtlety isn’t necessary in portraying oppression and activism—but why it still helps.
John Sayles’ historical drama Matewan (1987) tells the still nearly forgotten story of the 1920 West Virginia coal wars, when striking coal miners were pitted against both imported scabs and hired guns brought in by the Stone Mountain Coal Company (one battle within a long history of such conflicts, as both of the latter two links indicate). Sayles’ hero, played by one of his (and my) favorite go-to actors Chris Cooper, is a United Mine Worker labor organizer named Joe Kenehan who has come to town to help unionize the miners and is eventually killed by the outside thugs; it is to this character that Sayles gives a line that sums up his movie’s entire ideology quite succinctly. The white miners are planning to fight the newly arrived African American and Italian American scabs when Kenehan notes, “They got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign … when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world: them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you got to know about the enemy.”
Sayles’ more political films can tend toward the preachy, and this is one of his more overt such moments (although interestingly, the single most effective labor advocacy in the film is delivered as part of a far more subtle and symbolic sermon, one preached by the young activist Danny who idolizes Kenehan). But does such overt ideological preaching necessarily constitute a weakness or mistake? I would argue that, at least in this particular case, there are strong arguments that it doesn’t. For one thing, there’s no question that the striking Matewan miners were indeed facing an enemy, one who had been explicitly paid to stop them at all costs; recognizing that fact, as Kenehan urges them to here, was thus key for their survival, much less their success. And for another thing, Sayles is dealing in this film with a history that’s almost entirely unknown in late 20th and early 21st century America—in such a case, you could argue that trying to be too subtle or understated would risk not making his audience aware of the history at all.
So I wouldn’t say that Sayles’ lack of subtlety in that quote, or in the film overall, is a shortcoming. But on the other hand, that element, coupled with the corollary black-and-white worldview it brings with it (for example, the two characters who represent the hired guns are pretty much evil incarnate), does elide the complex but unavoidable reality that every person and group in this story were as human as every other. For a compelling potrayal of that shared humanity, I can’t recommend strongly enough Diane Gillam Fisher’s poetry collection Kettle Bottom (2004); in it Fisher portrays the West Virginia coal wars through the first-person voices and perspectives of numerous characters, representing every group and side within these histories. Because whatever the practical necessity of Kenehan’s quote, the truth is that it comprised a particular and limited vision of “work,” one that includes certain people in the community and excludes others; whereas a work like Fisher’s can help us think about the work, as well as the lives, of every person in this historical world, wherever our ultimate identifications and sympathies might fall.
Last work work work work work tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Texts or histories you’d highlight?