It is based on a true story of coal miners at the Stone Mountain Coal Company in Matewan, Mingo County, West Virginia who organized a union in 1920. The result was a “massacre” on May 19, 1920, in which 12 people were killed in a shootout between local police and miners, and thugs which the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency had hired to break their strike. The film shows conflicts between local, African-American, and Italian miners, and their attempts to unify in the face of threats from the Company and their hired gun.
Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper): Ex-Wobbly (IWW) and union organizer for the United Mine Workers
Few Clothes Johnson (James Earl Jones): Leader of the African-American miners
Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell): Manager of the boarding house
Danny Radnor (William Oldham): Son of Elma, miner, preacher, union man
Bill Hickey and Tom Griggs (Kevin Tighe, Gordon Clapp): Thugs from Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency
Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn): Police chief of Matewan
Cabell Testerman (Joshua Mostel): Mayor of Matewan
Fausto and Rosaria (Joe Grifasi, Maggie Renzi): Italian immigrant miners
Hillard (Jace Alexander): Nose broken by Blacks; killed by Griggs
C.E. Lively (Robert Gunton): Store owner, betrays miners
Bridey Mae (Nancy Mette): Lost husband in the mine
Preacher (John Sayles): Anti-union minister
As we watch this film, keep these questions in mind:
What are working conditions in the mine? How do they compare to working conditions in the meat packing plants as described in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle? How are workers paid?
Why is the union anti-Black? How would you characterize union vs. African-American conflicts?
How does racial tension play into the Company's wishes? What derogatory labels are used in the film for various ethnic groups?
What was Few Clothes Johnson's response to being labeled a "scab"?
Why are Italian immigrant miners hesitant to join the union?
According to Joe Kenehan (the union organizer), what are the two sides to the struggle? What does working-class consciousness mean?
What social problems and changes do immigrants face in this film? Is there pressure on them to assimilate into the dominant culture? What do they lose and what do they gain?
How does Kenehan feel about using violence to resolve labor struggles?
What tactics does the Company use to break up the union and its strike?
What are the roles of women in this film? Are they just wives and mothers, or do they play a more significant role in the union, strike, and social struggles?
Who is the narrator in this film?
What would happen to the town of Matewan if the Stone Mountain Coal Company simply left?