THE STORY – The cultural roots of coal permeate the rituals of daily life in Appalachia, even as its economic power wanes. The journey of a coal miner’s daughter reveals the region’s dreams and myths.
THE CAST – N/A
THE TEAM – Elaine McMillion Sheldon (Director), Shane Boris, Heather Hannah & Logan Hill (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
Early in Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s dream-like documentary “King Coal,” retired miner Fred Power, complete with a hard hat and dust-smeared face, recites the lyrics of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s hit “16 Tons” to a crowded classroom as a way of explaining to local kids just what life was like when he was working in the mines. Indeed, many, if not all, of the residents of Central Appalachia over the last century have regarded coal as central to their existence — whether they worked in the mine itself or supported those who did — and spoke about it in almost reverential tones often calling it “King Coal.” And many, perhaps too many, did indeed owe their souls to their town’s company store.
In her latest documentary, McMillion Sheldon takes a different approach to life in Central Appalachia. Most docs set in this region primarily deal with big, hard-edged issues, such as union organizing in Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning “Harlan County, U.S.A.” or the horrors of black lung disease in the PBS/NPR doc “Coal’s Deadly Dust” which was produced by McMillion Sheldon herself. In “King Coal,” however, she has created a kind of lyric poem about the region, juxtaposing imagery of the West Virginia mines and towns of today with her own reflections on the region, which she narrates on the film’s soundtrack.
As a long-time resident of the region, McMillion Sheldon knows the culture well, even its loving eccentricities, which might seem puzzling to outsiders. In local 5K races, for example, runners are routinely pelted with coal dust by bystanders along the way, and contestants in a local beauty pageant are asked what coal means to them on stage. On New Year’s Eve, instead of dropping the ball to ring in the New Year, one town’s tradition is to lower a giant lump of coal via a giant crane. It may be easy for outsiders to snicker, but McMillion Sheldon never condescends to these folks, depicting them as true believers in their rituals while revealing just how self-enclosed the culture in these towns can be.
But there are those whose dreams may lead them beyond the reach of “King Coal.” In casting a hopeful eye on the people of the region, McMillion Sheldon frames her story through the eyes of 12-year-old Lanie Marsh, who dreams of becoming a dancer. Like her best friend Gabrielle, Lanie is a coal miner’s daughter, yet her sights are set on a career performing far away from her small mining town. As she strolls through the fields or pirouettes in supermarket aisles, Lanie imagines a new life on the stage, symbolizing the dreams of the next generation who still live in coal country. Yet, given the hold that “King Coal” has upon the families of this region, a nagging feeling is ever-present in the film — dreamers like Lanie may never get beyond the mountains of Appalachia.
Of course, a lyric poem in feature-length form is a difficult feat to pull off, and even at 78 minutes, several sequences in “King Coal” begin to feel repetitive. As the familiar structure of blending bucolic images with poetic narratives recurs repeatedly, its power loses its impact as the film continues (Perhaps a documentary short would have served the material better).
Still, what McMillion Sheldon captures in the faces of the Appalachian people reveals a resilience that’s hard to shake. As its residents try to bury the past in the film’s climactic funeral sequence, “King Coal” becomes, at times, a moving profile of a people willing to embrace change and a generation who will owe their souls to the company store no more.