A labor union organizer comes to an embattled mining community brutally and violently dominated and harassed by the mining company.
Mingo County, West Virginia, 1920. Coal miners, struggling to form a union, are up against company operators and the gun thugs of the notorious Baldwin-Felts detective agency. Black and Italian miners, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught between the two forces. UMWA organizer and dual-card Wobbly Joe Kenehan determines to bring the local, Black, and Italian groups together. While Kenehan and his story are fictional, the setting and the dramatic climax are historical; Sid Hatfield, Cabell C. Testerman, C. E. Lively and the Felts brothers were real-life participants, and 'Few Clothes' is based on a character active several years previously.
- This film is about the miners in Mingo County, West Virginia, who worked in the coal mine just outside the town of Matewan (pronounced MAY-TWAN.)
The story opens with the voice of a narrator, who turns out to be one of the characters, young Danny (Will Oldham), who is looking back on this time of conflict in Matewan. The main points of view are those of Danny and Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper).
A labor organizer (and self-described "Red"), Kenehan, arrives in the town just as black and Italian "scabs" are being brought to replace striking coal miners who are fed up with the mining corporation's manipulation of the per-ton price of coal (At the film's outset, the price-per-ton is 90 cents.)
Eventually, the scabs stop working, too, and join Kenehan's effort to unionize the miners. White, black and Italian workers overcome their ethic and National prejudices in order to organize themselves against the powerful mining corporation which has hired seven armed agents from Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency.
These strike-breakers are sent to quell the coal miners' unionizing efforts. The most sinister of these corporate-hired thugs, Hickey (Kevin Tighe), evicts impoverished mining families from their homes, bribes and threatens Mayor Cabell Testerman (Josh Mostel) and Sheriff Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) of Matewan, and creates terrible tension between the miners and those trying to lead the unionization efforts.
The worst problems arise when an agent provocateur, C. E. Lively (Bob Gunton), infiltrates the group of miners and incites then to violence against the corporate representatives.
The final result is a massacre from which no one emerges unscathed.
This film is based on solid historical events in West Virginia coal mining country, variously known as the "Matewan Massacre" or the "Battle of Matewan," and dramatizes for both adults and young people the sacrifices made by American laborers as they fought for unionization and, ultimately, for the power to collective bargain.
The acting is excellent and the characters are well-developed. The movie was written and directed by John Sayles who, ironically, plays a small part as an anti-union fanatical evangelical hardshell preacher in the community of Matewan.