Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 10th, 2023
King Coal (Elaine McMillion Sheldon, 2023) 4 out of 4 stars.
From Appalachian filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon (Recovery Boys) comes King Coal, a complex ode to her regional roots—here represented by Southwest Pennsylvania, Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, and the entirety of West Virginia—in which the history of coal exploitation mingles with ethnography and reflections on the present. Weaving in and out of memory and time, the director crafts a spectacular montage of images and sounds that explore both local pride and trauma. A mere 78 minutes, the movie feels simultaneously brisk and comprehensive.
Narrating the story herself, McMillion Sheldon walks the viewer through a vast array of arresting frames, cutting quickly between scenes, her transitions often taking our breath away. Central to her narrative are two 12-year-old girls—Lanie Marsh and Gabby Wilson—she has cast as our vehicles into the coal universe as it stands today. We follow them and listen in on their conversations as they express their hopes for the future and thoughts on what the coal industry means to them and their families.
Though the girls are frequently in sync and seem like close companions, Lanie is white and Gabby is Black, so we occasionally learn different perspectives on the past courtesy of that different racial background. Most of the time, McMillion Sheldon’s camera (led by Director of Photography Curren Sheldon) follows the two through a series of striking locations, offering us a beautiful panoply of the area’s natural wonders.
Speaking of striking—though of a different kind—we also learn about the history of labor unrest and how coal miners have played such an important role in the founding of unions. Given the apparent one-time omnipotence of “King Coal’ (a catchall phrase encompassing the big mining companies, which Upton Sinclair made famous in his eponymous 1917 novel), it’s only just that the workers made their substantive marks, as well. Sure, there are plenty of local tributes in the form of statues, museums, school-team names, parades, beauty pageants, and more, but what counts is power, and it’s good to know that sometimes the little guy can exact some hard-fought victories.
As a work of cinema, King Coal proves aesthetically stunning, while also holding our attention as cultural anthropology. McMillion Sheldon pulls off the impressive feat of making such a specific documentary a meditation on the state of the nation as a whole (without any form of heavy-handedness to alert us to what she is doing). Lush in presentation and sober in meaning, the film is an artistic triumph.