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Devil Put the Coal in the Ground promotional graphic.

ReFrame Review: Devil Put the Coal in the Ground

Written by
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
and
and
January 20, 2023
ReFrame Review: Devil Put the Coal in the Ground
Devil Put the Coal in the Ground promotional graphic.

In 1987 a film called Matewan was released. The movie dramatized the events of the Battle of Matewan. In May of 1920, a group of striking coal miners who had recently taken a vote to form a union took up arms against their employers at the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation. In the end, seven officers who had been hired by the employers, two miners, and the Mayor of Matewan who had supported the strike lost their lives.

That film detailed the realities of life as a coal miner in the early part of the twentieth century. Devil Put the Coal in the Ground (2022), directed by Peter D. Hutchison and Lucas Sabean draws the audience’s attention to those who continue to live and work in the old coal mining town of West Virginia, some of whom are descendants of those who participated in the Battle of Matewan and similar strikes that led to the loss of life in order to gain dignity for miners and their families. 

What might seem like a distantly related incident informs the present for the West Virginians whose personal stories and accounts of modern life in small Appalachian towns detail the fallout of a half-century of corporate exploitation and interference in the coal industry. These outside forces, when compounded by government indifference, have led to a catastrophic cycle of poverty, addiction, health crises, and hopelessness in the wake of massive economic and environmental devastation.

For the men in the film, there is an ethos gleaned from their fathers and their grandfathers before them that there are “two kinds of people - men that worked and men that don’t.” The sense of pride that comes from working in the mines and providing for one’s family is deeply and rightfully ingrained in these communities. But as the jobs slowly disappear, so too does the opportunity and sense of usefulness which accompanied it. 

One subject of the film relates that this cycle of trauma, grief, and loss leading to addiction and hopelessness in the community is the result of a “loss of self, loss of who you are.” The end result is the emptying out of the mining towns, as families and young people find themselves without a future. Those who remain are subject to the toxic aftermath of over one hundred years of the coal industry operating with close to no government oversights. Epidemics of residents dying suddenly of cancer in their mid-fifties and children having to have organs removed are part of the lived realities for the community members. 

Some interviewed for this film recall a time before strip mining when the hills around their towns were verdant green and supplied their families with plenty of food. Their ancestors were proudly self-sufficient though community-oriented, and able to depend on the land to supplement their pay from the mines. Connection to the land is still what keeps some families there. Though they can no longer rely on the land to do anything but poison their farm animals and children, this is where their ancestors are buried and it is the only home they know. 

Betrayed by the coal companies and invisible to all levels of government, there is another menace that lies in wait in the form of intentional manipulation at the hands of pharmaceutical companies ready to dump thousands of opioids into these communities. The symbiotic relationship between the companies who depend on the labour of injured workers, the government’s lack of concern for environmental regulation and healthcare, and the rash of sick and desperate people makes for a perfect storm. 

Devil Put the Coal in the Ground centres the voices of those who have experienced decades of institutional violence and survived to tell their stories. These are the descendants of workers who took up arms and literally went to war against their employers, and while the weapons might have changed, the sense of pride and duty to their community and future hasn’t evaporated.

The 2023 ReFrame Festival runs from January 26th-February 3rd. A list of films, tickets to events and screenings, and more information can be found on the Festival Website.

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