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USA | 1987 | 133 minutes | John Sayles

February 19, 2020

John Sayles' 1987 retelling of the Matewan massacre, an historical clash between miners fighting for their rights and the union busting company men who would stop at nothing to reduce their workers to nothing but cogs in the mining company's machine.


n+1's film critic A.S. Hamrah, author of the collection "The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing 2002-2018," joins us for a post-film discussion. Hamrah recently penned an essay ("All We Got in Common") on Matewan for The Criterion Collection's newly released edition of the film. Hamrah also appears at Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday, February 20 for a reading from his collection, "The Earth Dies Streaming."

Borrowing its form from the Hollywood western, John Sayles' fifth feature as writer/director is perhaps the peak of his career, as bold in its staunchly political concerns as it is in its deeply felt humanist convictions. Featuring Academy Award-nominated cinematography by Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Medium Cool), there's a visual period authenticity at play that bolsters the performances of the stellar ensemble cast, including James Earl Jones and Will Oldham, as well as Sayles mainstays such as Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe, and, in his big screen debut, Chris Cooper.

More than 30 years after its release, Matewan reveals itself to be not just one of the best independent films of its time, but also in direct conversation with leftist cinema classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and Salt of the Earth.

"His (Sayles) career is unique in American cinema. No other writer-director who began making his own films post-Star Wars has managed to achieve as much while staying as true to his ideals."—A.S. Hamrah, from his essay on Matewan, "All We Got in Common"

"Politics are always at the mercy of human nature and custom, and the coal wars of the twenties were so personal that they make ideology accessible in a story, make it immediate and emotional. It was this emotional immediacy that made me think of making a movie about the events in Matewan."—John Sayles, "Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan"

  • Director: John Sayles
  • Principal Cast: Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham, David Strathairn, Ken Jenkins
  • Country: USA
  • Year: 1987
  • Running Time: 133 minutes
  • Producer: Peggy Rajski, Maggie Renzi
  • Screenplay: John Sayles
  • Cinematographers: Haskell Wexler
  • Language: English, Italian
  • Rating: PG-13