“King Coal” starts with a crash of thunder and the drum of a heartbeat. The camera pans over vast, muscular mountains shrouded in mist but the beat warns that something else, something astonishing, might rise from the hills. Weaving together filmy elements of fiction and rock-hard reality, writer and director Elaine McMillion Sheldon presents a vision of Appalachia in which the people whose labor and losses have long been buried in the seams under them rise triumphant at last.
Sheldon, whose family has worked in coal mines in the region for three generations, brings an empathetic eye to the challenges they face. That’s a relief for someone like me who calls West Virginia my home state and who is weary of hearing more depressing reports about the region’s deficits, its brain drain, its toxic politics.
Her family is represented by actors who cartwheel the viewer past rusting heaps of mining equipment and fields of wildflowers, who slosh through the polluted waters and the clear, rushing streams, who shine their lights on the glistening walls of blackness underground.
A gifted storyteller, Sheldon’s spare narration enriches “King Coal’s” empire with an emotional backstory that explains the coal industry’s long grip on the mountain states.
“As far back as I remember, coal has been leaving this place on barges, trucks and trains,” she says. ““I remember going on field trips to the mines. I remember humming along to ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ welling up with pride; feeling like Loretta had written it just for me.”
An Academy Award-nominated and Peabody-winning documentary filmmaker, Sheldon has brought her keen eye to the region before. She is the director of two Netflix Original Documentaries - "Heroin(e)" and "Recovery Boys" - that explore America's opioid crisis. "Heroin(e)" was nominated for a 2018 Academy Award and won the 2018 News and Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Short Documentary. The short film premiered at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival and went on to screen hundreds of times across America as part of what she calls “a community-driven impact campaign.”
How will “King Coal” impact the communities where windmills are starting to dot the horizon? It’s hard to say. It’s clear that Sheldon tends to the optimistic; she insinuates that there is a future in the region’s natural resources that doesn’t exact such a detrimental environmental and human toll. There’s so much beauty in the cinematography that, for the whole hour, I looked for familiar clues in the town squares and county fairs where she films a Bituminous Coal Queen contest and a New Years Eve “Coal rock Drop” to see if I recognized my small part of Appalachia. But I was looking in the wrong places. With her artful manipulation of scenery and sound, Sheldon steals the crown off the ragged head of King Coal and places it firmly on the people who are rising up out of the mines and taking care of the land.
When you come from a place where, as Sheldon says flatly, “value is only measured by the ton,” it’s important to focus on the stories of resilience and transformation, which are the beating heart of this film.
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