SUBJECTS — U.S./1913 – 1929, Diversity & West Virginia; Religions/Christianity;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Male Role Model; Fighting;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Respect.

AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating — PG-13;

Drama; 1987; 130 minutes; Color. Available from

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“Matewan” is a dramatization of the events leading to the famous Matewan massacre of 1920, in which the mayor, two miners, and seven armed coal company strong-arm men were killed in a shootout.


Selected Awards: 1988 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Cinematography; 1988 Academy Award Nominations: Best Cinematography.

Featured Actors: Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, William Oldham, Kevin Tighe, David Strathairn.

Director: John Sayles.


This movie describes an event in the struggle to unionize the coal fields of West Virginia; the oppression of the miners by the coal companies; cooperation between black and white miners; and the debate among the miners over the use of violence. It also shows the central role of evangelical religion in the lives of the miners, the isolation of the West Virginia coal towns, the difficulties of organizing a union, and the brutality of the coal companies. Joe Kinehan is a role model for a committed and patient social activist.


MODERATE. There are a number of beatings and shootings shown. Some are moderately graphic but all are tied to the story line. Alcohol use is shown in a negative light when the company spy uses it to cloud the judgment of a girl he persuades to falsely charge Kinehan with rape.

This film takes a pro-union position with respect to the attempts to unionize the coal fields at the beginning of the 20th century. While the activities of some unions may be controversial today, any responsible person would agree that the miners were exploited and abused by the mine owners until the unionization of the coal mines by the United Mine Workers Union in the 1930s.


Briefly describe the history of industrial relations during the Coal Field Wars. See the Helpful Background section. Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question.


Before the coal fields were unionized, the coal companies used many devices to oppress the miners. The companies owned the only stores in the town and required miners to buy food, clothing and tools at inflated prices. They owned all the housing, and would evict “trouble makers.” They employed thugs to beat and kill workers they didn’t like. Laws restricting child labor and mine safety were usually not obeyed.

The coal company operators dominated West Virginia politics, controlling both the Republican and the Democratic parties. Often, elected officials were executives of the mine companies and paid directly by the companies. Given the pervasiveness of the corruption in West Virginia in the early 20th century, it was unusual for a local police chief and a mayor to side with the miners.

Matewan was only one battle in the Great Coal Field War in which the mining companies sent thousands of armed guards and strikebreakers (scabs) to West Virginia. Company thugs killed coal miners and their supporters. The Matewan Police Chief, Sid Hatfield, was shot on the Court House steps by company operatives after he was indicted for his role in the Matewan Massacre. The coal miners, for their part, blew up mines and other coal company property. 10,000 miners fought a pitched battle with company forces at Logan, West Virginia, in 1921, gaining the upper hand. President Warren G. Harding then declared martial law in West Virginia, sent in Federal troops and broke the strike. The United Mine Workers Union was not able to organize the coal fields until the early 1930s when President Roosevelt came to power.

West Virginia has a tradition of fundamentalist religion that is close to the people. In this movie, knowledge of the Bible allowed the young preacher to tell his friends that Kinehan, the union organizer, was being unjustly accused while the coal company goons heard the same sermon but, because they didn’t know the Bible, completely missed the message.

During each war fought by the United States there have been a few young men who went to jail rather than fight. Often these were religious dissenters like the people that Kinehan spoke about, including Quakers and Mennonites. Others have been political dissenters, as Kinehan was. The number of conscientious objectors from U.S. wars has always been small. In World War II, when 15 million Americans served in the armed forces, there were only 50,000 conscientious objectors. Even during the Vietnam War, as unpopular as it was, there were only 21,000 conscientious objectors out of 22 million selective service registrants.



Was Joe Kinehan right to tell the miners that using violence would only play into the hands of the coal companies?

Suggested Response:

Yes. It would give the coal companies an excuse to demand that the governor, who was under their control, mobilize the National Guard and put down the strike by force. Violence is generally not a good tactic for implementing social change, see Learning Guide to “Gandhi”.


1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

2. Remember when Too Few Clothes (played by James Earl Jones) told the miners that while the black strikebreakers would join the Union, they would not participate in armed actions against the company operatives? What was the reason he gave? Why did the miners finally agree with him?



1. Did you consider Joe Kinehan a male role model?


2. Should the miners have massacred the company thugs or should they have used civil disobedience against the mine owners? (See Gandhi) Would civil disobedience have worked?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)

1. Were the conscientious objectors who refused to enlist in the army in WWI honoring the Pillar of Trustworthiness? Apply the Ethical Decision Making Model used by Character Counts to help you with your answer.


(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)

[See questions under the Fighting section above.]


The Pullman Strike of 1894 by Linda Jacobs Altman, is about the early labor movement and has been recommended for junior high and middle school students. Another recommended book is A Woman Unafraid: The Achievement of Frances Perkins, by Penny Coleman.



Wobbly, IWW, scab, goon.


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Past Imperfect, Mark C. Carnes, Ed., Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995 and Thinking in Pictures, John Sayles, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1987.

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