Matewan | Chicago Reader

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Try as he might, writer John Sayles has never been a natural filmmaker. But this sincere 1987 account of a coal miner strike and subsequent massacre in West Virginia in 1920 is so conscientiously detailed and so keenly felt and imagined—as well as attractively shot, by Haskell Wexler—that he deserves at the very least an A for effort. Simpleminded yet stirring, his depiction of a community of local whites, migrant blacks from the deep south, and immigrant Italians gradually joining forces against the company bosses and their henchmen, under the leadership of a pacifist organizer, offers a bracing alternative to complacent right-wing as well as liberal claptrap. If Sayles's bite were as lethal as his bark, he might have given this a harder edge and a stronger conclusion. But the performances are uniformly fine: Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, Kevin Tighe (perfect in dress and physiognomy, but strictly one-dimensional as scripted), James Earl Jones, and Sayles; the regional accents are especially well-handled. 133 min.

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