Matewan is a classic labor film set in 1920 in the southwest West Virginia coal fields. Chris Cooper plays the role of United Mine Worker organizer Joe Kenehan, David Strathairn is Police Chief Sid Hatfield, James Earl Jones is a coal miner, and Mary McDonnell runs a boarding house.
When the Stone Mountain Coal Company announces it will cut the miners’ pay and will be importing strikebreakers, white, black and immigrant miners band together against the Baldwin-Felt goons hired by the employer.
Director John Sayles appears in a small role as a fire-breathing, Red-baiting, fundamentalist preacher.
The music by Mason Daring plays an important role in the film and includes songs by Hazel Dickens as well as a performance by harmonica virtuoso Phil Wiggins.
The film was beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler.
“Matewan is a heartfelt, straight-ahead tale of labor organizing in the coal mines of West Virginia in 1920 that runs its course like a train coming down the track. Among the memorable characters is Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), a young union organizer who comes to Matewan to buck the bosses. With his strong face and Harrison Ford good-looks, Cooper gives the film its heartbeat…Most notable of the black workers is ‘Few Clothes’ Johnson (James Earl Jones), a burly good-natured man with a powerful presence and a quick smile. Jones’ performance practically glows in the dark. Also a standout is Sayles veteran David Strathairn as the sheriff with quiet integrity who puts his life on the line.” – Variety