King Coal Observes Undying Loyalty to a Waning Monarchy

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King Coal Observes Undying Loyalty to a Waning Monarchy

A 1973 coal miners’ strike in southeast Kentucky only got its powerful energy company back to the bargaining table after its agents or sycophants had murdered multiple people. Barbara Kopple—immersed in the corrupt United Mine Workers of America election that would portend one of these killings—filmed it all, and made one of the best documentaries about mining, labor and America: Harlan County, USA. In the 50 years since the strike in Harlan County, coal’s national power has been on the decline. In the last few years, that decline has turned into a crash. Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon brings us back to her native Appalachia with the documentary King Coal, where mining’s economic dominance takes a backseat to its cultural impact. While still a microcosm of organized labor, the problems with coal are now different—larger—than simple exploitation. As the lord’s power wanes, its loyalists hold on ever tighter to his reign.

Sheldon is the filmmaker behind the FRONTLINE episode “Coal’s Deadly Dust,” and has long been shooting non-fiction (like 2013’s “Hollow”) that tries to imagine a future for rural Americans by affectionately observing their present and contextualizing their past. Here, she uses the King Coal Festival and its nursery rhyme origins to construct an apt, vivid metaphor for an industry’s total dominance over a people. While two young girls—the avatars of Sheldon’s gentle, nostalgic voiceover—goof around, literally in the shadow of the mountains, then inside the mines themselves, we are immersed in the complex, myopic world that coal built.

The regal title only grows more meaningful as we see how desperately and deeply the fervor for the coal industry has taken root amid the dense forests. When Sheldon’s affectionate narration and lush appreciation of the region’s natural splendor fades to the background, and the area is allowed to speak for itself, King Coal becomes a much more piercing examination of coal’s abusive relationship with its excavators. Its monarchy is marked by omnipresent heraldic devices, worshipful signals of allegiance that’ve modernized from standards and coats of arms into t-shirts and street murals. Coal might be on its way out, but these generational subjects have an undying loyalty.

It’s almost absurd how Sheldon presents this transformation from company town to coal-centric theme park. It’s almost too American how her mining communities have incorporated wacky (to the outside observer) coal propaganda into their daily lives. There are coal-shoveling competitions, fun runs where the rainbow powder tossed onto participants is replaced by coal dust. An image of a suffering miner is tattooed on another, dark black ink embedding in flesh like coal dust permanently entombed under a layer of skin. There is a coal-adjacent pageant, where ambitious girls give coal-based speeches and pirouette to Christian pop songs in dances dedicated to fallen coal miners. An especially significant lump of coal is slapped by high school football players (the Miners, naturally) before their game. A miner talks to elementary schoolers, describing in gruesome detail the death by methane explosion he barely dodged. “Burn all the skin off your body, eyeballs outta your sockets,” he deadpans to a roomful of children.

Untimely death is an implied byproduct of this culture. Workers are martyred while in life, then honored at event after event. There is an inherently American intermingling of industry and faith—of mining and Christianity—where the blend of religion and professional mythology constructs a culture where King Coal has a divine right to their very lives. The miners are sacrifices to some great Earthen deity that provides their families with warm homes and full bellies.

As Sheldon goes deep into this culture, riding down into the mines and filming the families who live and die by them, we understand how hard it will be for anything to change. Her central girls have hopes and ambitions far beyond the mines, but they still feel the weight of their home’s anchor. 

That pull is visualized as Sheldon appreciates the land, but—as a movie by and about non-Native Americans—in a more prickly way than an Indigenous doc like Lakota Nation vs. the United States. Sheldon certainly reminds us of the discrepancy at hand, and the reality of the place’s past and present. But theft and pollution and death cannot erase pride, or even encourage a deeper thought around a community’s central totemic rock. And shame does not erase the facts of history.

When the writing alludes to these complexities, spelling out little, its lyricism floats above its world. But Sheldon’s expressive prose can also be imprecise, loose and vague in its abstraction, more distracting than compelling. These moments cohere only thanks to the lushness of her images, and how rarely we get to see nature—or real communities, for that matter—filmed with such affection and care. Sheldon and her cinematographer husband Curren Sheldon shoot in broad strokes, ogling verdant seas of treetops and striped layers of stone, and in urban details, focusing on busted grocery stores that sell crappy little plastic toys and rows of homes that all have the same layout, so that when you go to your friend’s house, you already know where the bathroom is. This balance allows us to understand where this place is, and where it might go. Archival footage, inherited songs and a few interviews with old-timers connect us with its past.

At under 80 minutes, King Coal is a brief requiem for an empire still in the throes of its cult of personality. Though the movie’s meandering eye can be distracted by the pretty scenery, attacked but not entirely laid to waste by the industry-lifestyle it so compellingly documents, it makes its case boldly and tragically. King Coal might not be an invigorating, fire-lighting work like Harlan County, USA, but it is still a startling piece of anthropology: An expression of a place and a people, and their local god, ruler and captor.

Director: Elaine McMillion Sheldon
Release Date: August 11, 2023

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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