Matewan, the con-spectare-cy

by Michaela B 

The “virtual film night” has never satisfied me, personally. I love films, alone or with others. But when I’m with other moviegoers, I really want to be with them. As others react with pleasure, surprise, or dismay, I want to sense it. 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 the pandemic has become less severe in some places, I have started to go to films in public again. As we attempt to safely gather for in person or hybrid socialist socializing, we can create chapter viewings 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 a movie together be called? A con-spectare-cy? 

August 2021 marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the bloodiest and most decisive of a collection of labor skirmishes known as “The Coal Wars” of West Virginia. The Wars 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. The 1987 film Matewan, directed by John Sayles, 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 in the following August. 

Our chapter’s political education committee put on a members-and-family-only screening of Matewan on Juneteenth last year, after running a poll of five films that focus on multiracial labor struggles and Black liberation. Before we pressed play on Matewan, a Political Education committee member gave a brief summary of the historical context, discussed why the film was appropriate for Juneteenth, and raised a few questions for comrades to consider while they watched. All that was required were comrades willing to volunteer spare space, a little bit of time, and portable home entertainment equipment—and an adequate stream of the film. With more planning, we might have sprung for a DVD. 

While Matewan is broadly about the striking workers fight to beat the bosses, in the film, their 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, systematically fomented by the company that oppresses and controls the entire town, but 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 also of this “outsider,” listen first with skepticism. 

As they, 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 “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), 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. 

There are many directions a political education session around Matewan could go. For instance, 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.” 

Besides the recent centennial of the Coal Wars, there’s another reason a viewing of Matewan right now is appropriate for DSA members. UMWA, the United Mine Workers of America, has been on strike in Alabama since April 2021, fighting for a fair contract from Warrior Coal. Find out more about the strike here:

Has your chapter had a successful in person, hybrid, or virtual film screening? What did you watch, and how did you decide what to watch? How did you do the event safely? Did you have a discussion—and if so, how did you frame it?  What else was notable about the event? Submit your chapter’s story here, and put RED LETTER in the subject line! Please aim for a maximum of 500 words. [email protected]