"Matewan" Mine Wars Film Screened in W.Va. for 30th Anniversary

Oct 9, 2017

500 people attended a special screening of the film Matewan in South Charleston on Saturday, including screenwriter and director John Sayles, to celebrate the film's 30th anniversary. 20 of those in attendance were union miners, and they presented Sayles with an honorary membership in the Umwa local 1440 in Matewan. 

Outside the LaBelle theater in South Charleston, a line of people stretched down the street to wait in the hot sun to see Matewan. A few, like Wanda Collins, were there to watch it for the first time.

“My father, my grandfather, and several uncles were coal miners, and I just wanted to learn a little bit more about the coal miners and their coal miner war. My grandfather particularly worked in the coal mines all his life and was in some of the coal mining wars," said Collins.

Collins traveled from Nitro; others came from out of state. Inside the theater, two men wearing UMWA shirts were helping usher people to their seats. Charles  “Hawkeye” Dixon, with the local Union 1440 in Matewan, said he’d like to see more events like these that help tell the history of labor in the coalfields.   

“Kids are not taught history like they should be taught history. Should be the responsibility of the state and the school system as well. You know, they shouldn’t be ashamed of our history, they should teach our kids more about our history," said Dixon.

Writer and director John Sayles
Credit Roxy Todd/ WVPB

After the screening, Dixon and 19 other union members presented director John Sayles with a certificate, making him an honorary member of the UMWA Local 1440, because they said his film told their story, and the story of their ancestors.

When asked how he saw the challenges facing the union miners today, nearly 100 years after the Matewan Massacre, Sayles said the mine companies are still threatening miners with their lives, even though today, they’re doing it by trying to take away their health care, and pensions.

"The people who don’t want there to be unions have big economic reasons to not want them," said Sayles. "What it leads to, I’m afraid though, is an imbalance, where people have no power to push back. And when people have no power to push back, they just get taken advantage of.”

Sayles’ partner, Maggie Renzi, one of the producers of Matewan, also attended the screening. She says the fact that a new Mine Wars Museum has been built in Matewan is a testament to the pride people here have in telling their own story. 

"That is a real reclaiming of people’s own voice. And I do think that the more people can speak for themselves, and not have other people interpret their own story and their own history, then there’s a chance to educate people around you and show what the real story is," said Renzi.

Matewan screening at LaBelle Theater in South Charleston
Credit Roxy Todd/ WVPB

Some of the union members at the screening said they worry what new challenges they’ll face, now that West Virginia has become a "Right to Work" state.

But despite the setbacks, retired miner Danny Whitt still believes in what the union represents. “They’ll never take the union out of our hearts, and the union is not something you can just grab ahold of and tear it up. That’s what our fathers went through, they tried to bust them up. Tried to kill ‘em off," said Whitt, a native of Matewan and a descendant of some of the miners who fought during the mine wars.

"They suffered hardships, living in tents, had family members killed, they didn’t take it out of their hearts. When you fight for something right, and you know you’re on the right side, you don’t give up.”

"I didn't find people from W.Va. different than me. I think we found real commonality and real solidarity. I want to insist on that, and not accept that this divisiveness is natural. I think it's been promoted, just like the mine owners, it's been promoted from the outside to keep people down."- producer Maggie Renzi

Whitt said coal company owners no longer have to hire Baldwin Felts detectives to fight miners with guns. Now they have lawyers to fight against them in bankruptcy courts.  

Looking back, director John Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi say the film Matewan could not have been so successful if it had not been made in West Virginia, with the help of so many local people that acted in the film and helped them write the script. 

“I feel strongly that I want to celebrate the solidarity that we all experienced, the filmmakers who came from the outside and the people who worked with us locally, we were really on the same team," said Renzi. 

members of the UMWA local 1440 in Matewan speaking with director John Sayles

"And as the years has passed, and particularly recently, there’s been all this 'red state' 'blue state' nonsense, and this declaration that people are just different, and that’s the way it is, and that’s the way that it always was. Well I didn’t find people from West Virginia different than me. I think we found real commonality and real solidarity. I want to insist on that, and not accept that this divisiveness is natural. I think it’s been promoted, just like the mine owners, it’s been promoted from the outside to keep people down."

According to Renzi, MGM Motion Pictures plans to re-release Matewan digitally in 2018.

The anniversary screening of Matewan was organized by the W.Va. Mine Wars Museum, and was sponsored in part  by the W.Va. Humanities Council. The event raised over $8,000 for the Mine Wars Museum, which is located in Matewan. Museum board member Catherine Moore says the money will be used to hire a staff person to run the museum and plan the 2021 Battle of Blair Mountain Centennial Celebration. 

The W.Va. Mine Wars Museum is open Fridays and Saturdays, 11-6 until the end of October. The museum will be closed for the winter and will reopen again next April.