Harking back to Matewan (in which I got to ask John Sayles a question!)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwEMIvDEFy4]

The above scene from Matewan – indeed, the entire movie – is well worth revisiting today, as them that don’t” work, but rule the country (and indeed much of the globalized world) are dragging the US back to a century ago, to the days of the Matewan massacre and the bloody birth of labor unions in this country. Why, ordinary Americans, “them that work“, may no longer even be relevant to the ruling oligarchs in this country today!

I saw Matewan in 1989, just a few months before leaving India to come to the US, seeking to shape my own future as a graduate student. As a lifelong cinephile growing up on a steady diet of Bollywood and Hollywood films, I – like most of my friends – had mostly envisioned life in the US through the lens of Hollywood glamour. The global marketplace of films doesn’t really have room for anything other than big studio blockbusters and thrillers, rom-coms and raunch-coms. Realistic Indie films like Matewan rarely get worldwide theatrical releases – heck, most of them don’t even make it to the multiplexes of Fresno today! I’m glad I stumbled upon Matewan in a video rental shop in Dehradun. A few years earlier, John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” had given me my first major jolt of awakening towards the reality of ordinary Americans’ life and history – as opposed to the celluloid dreams. John Sayles sucker-punched me with his powerful retelling of a turning point in American history – one not often told in our history textbooks. He described it thus during an extended interview with Amy Goodman broadcast on Democracy Now this morning:

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, Matewan is a movie about a labor strike, a coal miner strike in 1920 in West Virginia. The way that the coal operators tried to keep workers divided in those days was what they called a judicious mixture, which would be to hire a third hillbilly miners from West Virginia, a third immigrants from Yugoslavia, Italy, wherever, and a third black miners from the South, where the mines were just tapping out, and they would come up and be—trying to use them as strikebreakers. Often housed them in three different places, put them into the mine from three different places so that they couldn’t even meet on the job. And they thought, “Well, these people will never get together and form a union.” But in fact, the conditions were so bad and the pay was so bad that they found ways to find each other and ended up forming—the UMW was one of the most integrated unions of that time.

AMY GOODMAN: United Mine Workers.


Go watch the whole interview on the Democracy Now website, where the above remark was followed by another excerpt from the movie. As the conversation continued, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my own name on the radio! Read on for the questions I got to ask John Sayles, and his thoughtful response:

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of John Sayles’ Matewan. As you watch, what are you thinking?

JOHN SAYLES: Well, it’s interesting that that story hasn’t quite ended. The Matewan Massacre, which ends my film, was the prelude to an American incident called the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the first time that bombs were dropped from airplanes. And in fact, they were dropped by American citizens on American citizens. And right now, as we speak, there is a second Battle of Blair Mountain, which is Blair Mountain had been named a historical landmark, then was unnamed because a coal company wanted to take the top of the mountain off. And a kind of coalition of people who think that it’s important history to keep this site the way that it was and environmentalists have joined together to try to fight the mountaintop removal of Blair Mountain. It’s a story that doesn’t end in West Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the massacre at the time, that you cover in Matewan.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, the massacre, at the time, was one of the few times that the coal miners actually won one of these armed engagements, if you can say a massacre is ever winning anything. People on both sides—

AMY GOODMAN: The year?

JOHN SAYLES: This is 1920. And eventually, the Baldwin-Felts Agency—the two guys who were kind of beating up on people at the beginning of that clip were from the Baldwin-Felts Agency, which was very much like the Pinkerton Agency, kind of the Blackwater of the time—ended up marching into town to evict a bunch of people. At that time, they had threatened and shot at and beaten enough people that there was a bunch of miners hidden around town with guns. And when there was a confrontation between the sheriff and the mayor and the heads of the Baldwin-Felts Agency in the middle of the street, pretty much at high noon, the miners who were secreted when the shooting started—and it’s still unclear who started shooting—were in a better position to shoot at the people who were out in the street than the people out in the street were in position to shoot at them. So, more of the Baldwin-Felts agents got killed than miners and civilians did, but there were people killed on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve gotten a question in on Facebook from Madhasudan [sic] Katti, who posted this question on Facebook: “Given that you directed one of my favorite American movies, Matewan, about the early days of the labor union movement in this country, I would like to know what you think of the current efforts to undermine unions. Are we being pushed back to the days of Matewan? And also wanted to know what you think about the general decline in the public perception of unions.”

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, well, this is a long story, but I would say, you know, two things happened. Federal judges and state judges, under both Democratic and Republican regimes, have changed legislation in the favor of companies against unions for the last 30, 35 years. So it’s much harder for a union to go on strike without breaking the law than it used to be. Unions had a very, very brief moment in the sun, pretty much starting when Franklin Roosevelt got into power. And some of his appointees, judges, were more favorable to the right of workers to collectively bargain.

Right now, certainly the conservative Republican agenda is to undo the New Deal. You know, they’re not just trying to undo what recent Democratic regimes have put in; it’s to undo the New Deal, to take us back to something like the ’20s or the ’30s, when unions were pretty much outlaw organizations, considered outlaw organizations. And since so few people are unionized today, their thrust now is not necessarily against industrial workers, but against public service unions, starting with the teachers.

And I think that years of anti-union propaganda, plus mistakes unions have made, you know—and sometimes just mistakes they’ve made and sometimes things that they have not been able to avoid, like organized crime taking over their unions and using them for purposes other than what they should be used for—have undermined people’s kind of image of what unions are. And there are places like Wal-Mart, that if you’re going to work at Wal-Mart, you have to watch a couple weeks of anti-union propaganda in order to hold onto the job.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

JOHN SAYLES: They will literally say, “If you want this job, you know, for a couple hours a day your first week, you’re going to have to come and you’re going to have to sit and watch these movies,” and they’re anti-union movies.

Depressing as it is to think about how the oligarchs are now turning the clock back on the rest of us, while making us irrelevant, we can take heart from Sayles’ parting words:

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, a question came to us by email from Pia Massey, who asks if you have any tips for sane survival for artist-activist types.

JOHN SAYLES: Well, I think the sane survival—one of the things is to think of your role not as somebody that, you know, if there are no final victories, there are also no final losses, and that things have gotten better. They usually haven’t gotten better because of what’s been going on at the top. They’ve usually gotten better because of what’s been pushing from beneath. You know, the politicians are only going to be as good as we force them to be. And that however small your audience is, however frustrating it is to get your version of the world or what you want to talk about out there, it’s part of the conversation. And if you shut up, the conversation is one-sided.

It is good for your sane survival to watch Matewan again – even though it is not available on Netflix or iTunes, and reasonably priced DVDs may be hard to find! You may find it in parts on YouTube, I think – just go to the page for the above video and look through the related videos list. 

And if you are in Fresno this summer, let me know if you want to watch it together! While we wait for Amigo to arrive (will it reach Fresno?).

Let’s keep the conversation from getting too one-sided, shall we? 

One thought on “Harking back to Matewan (in which I got to ask John Sayles a question!)

  1. Carol

    I just wish this (Matewan) and every important movie would be offered in a ‘captioned’ version as well so that curious, interested Deaf people could have the option of being awed, informed and blown away by such great film making. My daughter (now 40) called yesterday to ask me if I knew that early days Unions disallowed Blacks to join… I told her about ‘Harlan County USA” and “Matewan”, but since neither is probably captioned (I will check) she be unable to watch and learn. Both my kids are deaf…smart, curious, educated but excluded from much great American cinema (TV, internet programming and news, E.g. Democracy Now)

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