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"A Moment in the Sun": An Extended Interview with Filmmaker/Author John Sayles

Amy Goodman discusses race, class, labor, and sexuality with the legendary filmmaker-turned-novelist.

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JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, Matewan is a movie about a labor strike, a coal miner strike in 1920 in West Virginia. The way that the coal operators tried to keep workers divided in those days was what they called a judicious mixture, which would be to hire a third hillbilly miners from West Virginia, a third immigrants from Yugoslavia, Italy, wherever, and a third black miners from the South, where the mines were just tapping out, and they would come up and be—trying to use them as strikebreakers. Often housed them in three different places, put them into the mine from three different places so that they couldn’t even meet on the job. And they thought, "Well, these people will never get together and form a union." But in fact, the conditions were so bad and the pay was so bad that they found ways to find each other and ended up forming—the  UMW was one of the most integrated unions of that time.

AMY GOODMAN: United Mine Workers.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So this is John Sayles’ film  Matewan, an excerpt, a scene in a striker encampment in the woods, beginning with a visit by the company’s hired muscle attempting to threaten the striking workers and their families.

 

HICKEY: You people have been put out of Stone Mountain Mine housing. And some of you have seen fit to take along certain items of food, furniture and clothing that don’t belong to you, but belong to the company. As of the day of the strike, your scrip ceased to be legal tender, meaning that any item of food, clothing and furniture not paid for in cash money must be turned over to me and my deputies. I suggest that you all cooperate. See my boys? They didn’t get much sleep last night, so they’re kind of jumpy. Besides, we got the law on our side.

HILLARD ELKINS: You ain’t no law! You got to slip around the real law. You just got guns is all. You’re just thugs.

HICKEY: Yeah, maybe you’re right, sonny. We just got guns. You still gotta hand in them goods.

HILLARD ELKINS: Yellow scab herder, you!

MRSELKINS: Hillard, you get up from there.

JOE KENEHAN: You got a list of goods?

GRIGGS: Don’t need one.

JOE KENEHAN: How you gonna know what belongs to the company and what don’t?

GRIGGS: He’s the red, Hickey. He’s the agitator.

JOE KENEHAN: Everybody see I don’t got a gun on me?

HICKEY: What good do you think that’s going to do you, red?

JOE KENEHAN: You shoot me, folks will know it was murder.

HICKEY: Well, that’s some cold comfort. You listen to me, red.

ISAAC: We was hunting. You folks were making an awful lot of commotion.

SHEB: You scairt all the game away.

ISAAC: This your machine? Heard it last night, too. It’s an offense to the ear.

GRIGGS: Hold it, pops. You’re talking to the law here.

SHEB: He ask you anything?

GRIGGS: Where’d you get that thing, pal? Spanish war?

SHEB: No. War between the states.

ISAAC: You all get in this machine and get back into town, where you belong. Ain’t but one law out here, and that’s the law of nature.

 
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