Film explores Appalachia after the reign of 'King Coal'

Mar. 9—FAIRMONT — Tea in the mid-19th century wasn't just a commodity, it was an integral part of Chinese culture. It continues to play an important role in the different societies throughout Asia.

But tea also functioned as a lever on the fulcrum of history. Of such importance was tea to the factories of the UK during the Industrial Revolution, that the British Empire decided it was a good idea to get China addicted to opium just so the British could keep trading the drug for more tea.

To West Virginia, and Appalachia more broadly, coal is what tea was to Chinese politics and culture in the mid-19th century. Wealth, identity and labor wars spun around plant matter carbonized into rock.

"King Coal," a documentary directed by Elaine Sheldon, looks at the central place coal has occupied within mountaineer identity. The film, which was recently screened at Fairmont State University, was co-produced by Molly Born, a Fairmont State alumni.

"We got to wondering what happens to that identity around coal, in these cultural expressions, as our relationships to it are changing," Born said.

Sheldon and Born are intimately familiar with the presence of coal. Sheldon is a coal miner's daughter and Born's grandfather was a coal miner in Farmington, here in Marion County.

The film is unique for the narrative style it adopts to explore its subject. Rather than be a collection of interviews spliced together with footage from coal mines and around Appalachia, two school age girls anchor the film. Sheldon uses these two actors to trace a narrative path through the film, which uses footage gathered from various sources such as festivals, mines, and archival footage to show how an entire culture came to be shaped around coal.

"I remember growing up in Fairmont and my best friend, who was a coal miner's daughter, had a bumper sticker on her car," Born said. "Just drove around with it all the time. There's so many emblems and expressions of this pride and I think that's the question that we were sort of thinking about. I don't know that we have a firm answer but, what do we do with that identity?"

Spoilers for the film follow.

The film adopts an otherworldly tone from the very first shot, which opens with a funeral procession. "King Coal" becomes its own character, a dead god with more in common with Lovecraftian fiction than any flesh and blood monarch. Although the king may be dead, its corpse pervades everything, unwilling to allow its subjects to move on. The film itself could fit neatly within the genre of post-apocalyptic narratives.

"I wanted this film to speak to things not seen, but felt," Sheldon said. "So ghost stories and ballads and fables and fairy tales started working their way up. We're not talking about the industry necessarily, or a person, the industry is not King Coal, but it's really about the power of the story. And so the story itself is the ghost and the ghost is what haunts us, because when our story is done, that is all we'll ever be."

When she and Sheldon started making the film, they felt coal was more on the decline than it had been at any other time. Sheldon said from her team's perspective, a lot of what was missing in the discussion around coal was the human and cultural element. As someone with four generations of miners in her family, she's seen the decline of a sense of belonging, purpose and identity within her family that's associated with the decline of coal mining.

However, Sheldon wasn't fixated on the past.

The decision to have the two girls carry the film was predicated on a question Sheldon asked herself after her work filming pageants and events related to coal came to a halt due to the pandemic. After asking herself what she wanted the film to achieve, she realized that the film could be more than a conversation about current events, but also an opportunity to imagine a new future, and a new identity.

"I just felt that centering the girls could be a way for us to situate the audience into this place, see it in a way that maybe is less divisive," Sheldon said. "In the conversation around coal everybody has their side already and we really wanted to break down that divisiveness and have a new conversation. So centering kids at the middle of the film, it just really makes you think about what's left for them, what do they want, what are their dreams?"

The kids themselves also made it possible to explore contradictions at the heart of coal identity. One scene has the girls filling out a school assignment asking them to consider how important coal is to their family. Leaving the framing of the question aside, one girl immediately responds that coal is very important to her family. Her friend however, realizes that it isn't. Her parents are not tied to the coal industry, therefore it's less central to her life.

One moment in the film struck Lydia Warren, director of Fairmont State's Folklife Center. The girl who said coal wasn't a big part of her family's life learns her family does have a connection to coal through an ancestor who worked underground. However, there was one significant difference between the two girls that determined what sort of experience their ancestors had in the mines. One is White, and the other is Black.

"That whole conversation really struck me between the younger member of the family and the older woman where it was like, 'did he retire,'" Warren said. "And no, he didn't retire, he couldn't. He was hurt and couldn't work anymore. And that's it. It's interesting communities who have historically benefited less from these industries are going to have a more critical view of it. It's just going to not be as present in our lives."

The ancestor was injured while working the mine. No union came to fight on his behalf, despite his years of work underground. Black miners were often excluded from the benefits unions sought for their workers, which meant coal was less likely to ingrain itself at the center of family life. This reverabates down to today. The girl who is Black is a product of a family that had to seek opportunity elsewhere, never allowing coal to become part of her family's identity.

However, that doesn't mean that her family was free from coal's influence.

"You still have to deal with the fact that the majority might still be bowing down to King Coal," Warren said. "You're just like, 'it doesn't hold power over my family.' But if the one thing to do in town is the coal festival or the coal pageant or whatever, it's obviously still there. It's a looming presence whether you partake or not."

However, despite its post-apocalyptic tone, the film isn't pessimistic. If anything, the film is more interested in what comes after the post-apocalypse ends. Sheldon pulls a filmmakers trick, three quarters of the movie are shot in subdued color tones. However, at the end as the film considers what an identity outside of coal looks like for Appalachia, the color palette shifts. Brighter colors take the forefront and it feels like the sun is rising for the first time in a long while.

Born said the film will most likely be released for home viewing sometime in the summer. Up until now, it's mostly made the rounds at film festivals and other college campuses. One of Born's concerns was if people would understand what the film was trying to say. Other than a few defensive reactions to the funeral scene, she said people for the most part did.

A lot of the credit for that goes to the fact the filmmakers are Appalachians themselves, born and steeped in the culture they now interrogate.

"I think it's important for people who are from a place to tell the story of the place the way that they want to communicate it," Warren said. "It communicates something like a huge concept and idea and I found it so moving, but I was also proud of them for doing this. It's such an amazing thing that they've done. I can't imagine making a movie, period."

Reach Esteban at