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A Labor History Education You Won't Get In School


Ophelia
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These three films tell a story mostly left out of history classes:

 

First, "Hillbilly: The Real Story." It was on the History Channel a few years ago. It is a brief, fascinating summary of Appalachia. Included is the stunning story of the violent 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, West Virginia, which I for one had never heard of before. That fact alone is infuriating enough, but just wait till you hear the story itself.

 

Next is "Matewan" by John Sayles. It tells a fictionalized version of the story of the Matewan Massacre, which set off the Battle of Blair Mountain. Matewan was, and still is, a rough-and-tumble little coal mining town where the story is still, of course, well known. The film suffers from not telling the whole story, but Sayles said that to include the Battle of Blair Mountain would have doubled the length of the film. Too bad.

 

Last is the classic documentary "Harlan County USA." Releasex in 1976, it is the story of what happened when documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple went to Kentucky to cover a union election and ended up getting far more than she bargained for when an extremely tense strike breaks out. Because of that, the film has an uncontrived, surrealistic quality to it. One bemused reviewer said he felt like he had just seen a George Romero-style horror movie. Harlan County, Kentucky, is not far from Matewan, and is also an impoverished coal mining area with a history of labor strife.

 

See these films, and scare your history professor.

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"Matewan" is a great film. It's one of the few realistic and entertaining pro labor union films made in the US. Too bad Sayles couldn't make a sequel "The Battle of Blair Mountain". I've been on many strikes which had violent moments, but never with guns, ambushes and gangs of armed goons.

 

I' watch out for "Hillbilly" and "Harlan County USA".

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