Matewan [1987]

A little-known chapter of American labor history is brought vividly to life in this period drama from writer-director John Sayles. It's a fictional story about labor wars among West Virginia coal miners during the 1920's, but every detail is so right that the film has the unmistakable ring of truth. The tension begins when the Stone Mountain Coal Company of Matewan, West Virginia, announces a lower pay rate for miners, who respond by calling a strike under the leadership of a United Mine Workers representative (Chris Cooper). Proving strength in numbers, the miners are joined by black and Italian miners who initially resist the strike, and a fateful battle ensues when detectives hired by the coal company attempt to evict miners from company housing. Violence erupts in a sequence of astonishing, cathartic intensity, and Matewan achieves a rare degree of moral complexity combined with gut-wrenching tragedy. The film salutes a pacifist ideal while recognizing that personal and political convictions often must be defended with violence. To illustrate this point, Sayles enlisted master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who creates the film's authentic visual texture--a triumph of artistry over limited resources. The result is a milestone of independent filmmaking, and Matewan remains one of Sayles's finest achievements. --Jeff Shannon

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