By Scott Ross
Arguably the best American movie of the 1980s. John Sayles wrote, directed, appears in, and even (with Mason Daring) wrote the union folk songs for, this small but immensely powerful evocation of coal-mining troubles in the West Virginia of the 1920s.
Every scene, character, moment and performance is absolute and essential — there’s not a frame wasted nor a dramatic sequence dwelt on a fraction of a second longer than required. There haven’t been all that many serious fictional movies on labor issues made in the U.S., but this one ranks at the top of any list, however short, not least for Sayles limning the predatory way capitalism routinely pits workers, and races, against each other. Among its many pleasures are the performances of Chris Cooper, David Strathairn and James Earl Jones, the teenaged Will Oldham, and the wonderfully lived-in face of Mary McDonnel.
Matewan would make a fascinating double-bill with Norma Rae — made 50 years after the events depicted in Sayles’ movie and proving that the more things change…
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross