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In 1983 novelist, screen writer, and independent film director John Sayles and his producer, Maggie Renzie, came to West Virginia to produce a film about the Matewan Massacre. The massacre was a real event that took place in 1920 in Matewan, on the Tug Fork in Mingo County, during the West Virginia Mine Wars. There was a shoot-out between police chief Sid Hatfield and his allies on the union side and Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency guards hired by the coal mine owners.

Sayles first wrote about the incident in his novel, Union Dues (1977). For four years he reworked his screenplay, directed another film, Brother From Another Planet, and finally came to Thurmond, Fayette County, to shoot the film about Matewan. He hired cinematographer Haskell Wexler to shoot his depiction of the class war between the local workers and coal mine owners. The plot remains largely faithful to historic fact, told through the fictional characters of labor organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) and the boy preacher Danny Radnor (Will Oldham). The Black miner ‘‘Few Clothes’’ Johnson (James Earl Jones) is based on a historic figure of the same name active in an earlier phase of the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Matewan was nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography. The film has been shown all over the world, and has won many awards. The story line loosely resembles that of the great 19th-century novel by Emile Zola, Germinal. Sayles wrote a book about making the movie, Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan, published in 1987. In 2023, the Library of Congress added the movie to its National Film Registry, which includes works considered to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Written by Stephen Lee Fesenmaier