Matewan: a chapter con-spectare-cy

by Michaela B, NPEC 

I love films, alone or with others. But when I’m “with” other moviegoers, I want to be with them. As others react with pleasure, surprise, or dismay, I want to sense it and I didn’t even realize how much I missed it. Even at the multiplex, there’s something vaguely unifying about everyone doing the same thing at the same time—when everyone jumps or laughs, it feels good. 

As we gather for some semblance of safe, in person socialist socializing, we can create chapter events that serve a triple purpose: sensory pleasure, political education, and comradely presence. “Conspiracy” means to breathe together. So, what would a bunch of leftists watching the same thing be? Con-spectare-cy? 

River Valley DSA put on a members-and-family-only outdoor screening of Matewan on Juneteenth, after running a poll of five films that focus on multiracial labor struggles and Black liberation. John Sayles’ 1987 film Matewan barely beat out Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969’s Burn!—we plan to screen that sometime soon. Before we pressed play, a Political Education committee chair gave a brief summary of the historical context, discussed why the film was appropriate for this occasion, and raised a few questions for comrades to consider while they watched. 

This year marked the centennial anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the bloodiest and most decisive of a collection of labor skirmishes known as the “Coal Wars” in West Virginia. They pitted coal workers trying to organize with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) against local and state police and the goon squad—the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency—hired by powerful coal bosses. At Blair Mountain, 100 miners were killed over five days, and the carnage only ceased when US Army troops and WV Army National Guardsmen numbering close to 30,000 were called in. Nearly 1,000 miners were arrested for fighting for their lives and rights, many under charges of treason and murder. 

The year prior to the Battle of Blair Mountain, there was the Matewan massacre, a much smaller but catalyzing fight between Baldwin-Felts agents and striking miners in the town of Matewan, WV. Matewan, tells a fictionalized but broadly accurate version of the events leading up to the massacre, which left more agents dead than miners but resulted in a martial crackdown and intensified worker abuses, paving the way to the fateful five days the following August and September. 

Matewan is broadly about the striking workers’ fight to beat the bosses, whose prospective organizational success is complicated by their struggle to overcome anti-Black and anti-migrant bias. Matewan balances touching, hopeful portrayals of uneven but still growing cross-ethnic and multiracial solidarity with the unsentimental realism of casual and not-so-casual racism and parochial mistrust. That racism and mistrust is systematically fomented by the company that oppresses and controls the entire town, but is also clearly and rigidly normalized within that community. The IWW organizer tasked with getting the union off the ground, played by Chris Cooper, sees the massive hurdle racism presents and does his best to explain why it’s a failed proposition to the unionizing white miners, who, suspicious of this “outsider,” listen skeptically–at first. As the Black and Italian workers and their families slowly warm to each other through social interaction and work for their common survival, there remains a sense of tragic frustration as the pressure from the bosses increases and white miners falter in their drive to make “one big union.” 

The film is not a straightforward moral lesson, however, and the valences are intersecting and multiple, perfect for a good post-screening discussion. The excellent ensemble cast, including Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, and David Strathairn (and a very young and charismatic Will Oldham of Bonnie Prince Billy indie fame), create a textured narrative that shows with great sympathy the power and the failings of human beings, and both the desire and the need for collective, democratic ways of living. The scenes from the strike camp and the boarding house are wonderful object lessons of social reproduction theory. The “red-blooded Americans” answering the ambiguously worded employment ads for the murderous Baldwin-Felts agency are young men who would otherwise be jobless or mining coal—and here, the socialist pacifist arguments brought up by Cooper’s character faintly but clearly resonate. “All I saw were workers killing other workers, and there wasn’t any point in it…If them two years [in jail] kept me from killing some poor stiff who got pushed out onto a battlefield by rich folks and politicians, then they were worth it.” 

There are still a few months left in 2021 to honor these workers and to mark the centennial of this major event in labor history. Find out who in your chapter might have a projector or see if you can rent one, find a blank wall, and screen away! Although it’s not quite the same as in person, a Zoom screening can work with the right framing, now that the weather is changing. We recommend the political education view the film before to pull together some basic discussion questions for folks to think about as they view, and to get conversation going afterwards. Be sure not to create questions that feel like a “quiz”–just make a few, and aim to deepen members’ sense of the historical stakes and how the film relates to the socialist struggle.  

There are internet streams of varying quality out there, but if you wish to purchase the film from Criterion with chapter funds or donations, you can do so here or find it on a different retail website.  

Besides the centennial, there’s another reason a viewing of Matewan now is appropriate. UMWA has been on strike in Alabama for six months, fighting for a fair contract against Warrior Coal. To donate to the strike fund, go here