Friday, March 11, 2011

The West Virginia Mine Wars

The Republicans in Congress are trying to cut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities out of the federal budget, essentially eliminating all federal support for the arts, including support for documentary films. That's just one more way to stifle independent voices.

At a time when protests -- both non-violent and violent -- are sweeping the Middle East and Africa, and American unions -- supported by college students -- are struggling to fight off Republican attacks on the remnants of the labor movement, let's recall the kind of documentaries public money has helped produce.

Even the Heavens Weep: The West Virginia Mine Wars (1985), directed and edited by Danny L. McGuire, was produced by WPBY-TV and the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority with money from The Humanities Foundation of West Virginia and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It's a simple documentary -- narration, still photos and interviews -- that recreates the beginning of the labor movement in America, and the battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. It packs a surprising wallop.

In 1921, 10,000 armed coal miners -- many of them WWI vets -- marched up Blair Mountain to get at the coal mines and company towns on the other side of the mountain, triggering the bloodiest fight between labor and capital in America's history. The mine owners defended their mines and shanty towns with 3,000 hired thugs -- armed with rifles, machine guns and a small cannon -- dug in at the top of Blair Mountain, and hired private planes to bomb the miners with explosives and tear gas. Finally, Warren G. Harding sent federal troops to Blair Mountain to disarm both sides. Until the documentary was made in 1985, Blair Mountain had dropped out of American history.


Even the Heavens Weep, WV Educational Broadcasting Authority

Even the Heavens Weep is an important historical document, pulled together from archival photos and news clippings, framed by a good script. The photographs of the working conditions in coal mines before the unions and of the living conditions in the "company towns" at the West Virginia mines are, at the same time, a grim reminder of the past, and a horrifying glimpse into what the future of workers might look like in America, Inc.

Even the Heavens Weep is available from West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Charleston, West Virginia. For anyone interested in the labor movement and in understanding what that movement was originally about -- whether or not you know who John L. Lewis and Mother Jones are or where the name "redneck" came from -- it's more than worth the effort to get it.

It’s hard not to see similarities between the mine owners’ determination to smother the nascent union movement early in the 20th Century and corporate government’s determination to finish off the vestiges of the union movement now.

But it’s even harder not to see the differences. The early unions had the energy of youth and the excitement of their discovery of solidarity and brotherhood on their side, and the course of history was in their favor, even if it took ten more years, the Great Depression and the New Deal to establish the unions. (By the time Roosevelt threw the weight of the federal government behind the unions, every working man and woman in American would be hurting from the economic collapse that followed the drastic consolidation of wealth into hands of a few, privileged Americans that touched off the Great Depression.)

Nowadays, the union movement is on the wane. Fighting to protect public employee unions feels almost like fighting to protect an endangered species. Many Americans are hurting, and, in fact, will never work again. But there are too many Americans who are not hurting this time. The country and the economy is too big for 10,000 marchers to make a difference, even if they were armed — is that even conceivable anymore — and could find somebody to march against. It feels like the only thing left to document is the end of the labor movement in America. And maybe we won’t even bother to do that.

Films like Even the Heavens Weep don't cost a lot of money to make, but they do take time and dedication. And it takes backing to get the kind of interviews with historians McGuire uses to pull the archival footage and photos together. Without the mantle of the CPB, the NEA or the NEH, particularly for young film makers, getting access to credible sources can be extremely difficult --almost impossible -- to do.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

I wonder how many of the 7000 or so families of the original group are even aware of this documentary. Funding cuts to the arts leaves me heartbroken.