It’s very tempting to dismiss the coal-mining industry of Appalachia as the stubborn relic of an outdated era — the last gasp of the original Industrial Revolution that refuses to make way for newer, more environmentally friendly options like solar and wind energy. But to do so is to ignore the reality that coal still plays a major role in many Americans’ lives, a fact that Elaine McMillion Sheldon conveys powerfully in her lyrical documentary King Coal.
More tone poem than information-delivery platform, King Coal was inspired by the director’s own life: She grew up in West Virginia and has deep roots in Appalachia, having previously made films about the opioid crisis’ effect on the region (Heroine(e) and Recovery Boys). And it’s clear she loves the place she calls home, working with cinematographer Curren Sheldon (who’s also her husband) to capture the stunning beauty of the soaring mountains and lush green valleys. But that love doesn’t prevent her from honestly examining the complex role that the coal industry plays in many Appalachian people’s lives.
Two girls who look to be around 12 or 13 years old serve as McMillion Sheldon’s stand-ins, experiencing daily life in a place where the annual Coal Queen pageant still draws audiences, school science fairs tout the benefits of coal, and participants in a local 5K have coal dust “playfully” tossed at them as they run. Scenes of the girls observing daily goings-on and talking about how their lives are impacted by coal are intercut with the director’s voice-over narration describing life under King Coal and sequences that reveal more about the realities of an industry that requires workers to toil in dangerous underground mines.
The end result is thought provoking and, if you aren’t from Appalachia, eye-opening. McMillion Sheldon succeeds in penning a love letter to her home that both celebrates its positives — a solid community, valued traditions, a strong sense of history — and acknowledges its shortcomings: implicit (and sometimes explicit) bias, stubbornness, and resistance to change and outside influence. But while the king’s crown may be tarnished, he’s definitely still clinging to his throne. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: Like Loretta Lynn, Elaine McMillion Sheldon grew up a coal miner’s daughter, eventually leaving Appalachia to become an Oscar-nominated filmmaker. Now, she returns to the stomping grounds of her youth to spin a saga of the past, take a snapshot of the present, and mull the future of a region that found lifeblood (and early deaths) in the titular black rock. Where communities once thrived taking coal out of the ground, now they struggle as the opportunities mining once provided shrivel. Sheldon lays out the facts of the industry, its labor and environmental issues, and the struggle of insular towns to adapt to a world in which coal is no longer king. The film emphasizes the natural beauty of the area, however scarred by mining. Bobak Lotfipour’s ups the lyrical quotient with an evocative score in a film that is as much an elegy as a documentary.
Sherin Nicole King Coal is an odyssey—an epic poem in the form of a film. It is fueled by truth and folklore; and one little girl who speaks power to the legend. Neither a documentary nor a drama but almost a proceeding anthropological dig, this meditation on the sovereignty of coal mining throughout Appalachia is harsh, haunted, and spiritual but hopeful still. Filmmaker, Elaine McMillion Sheldon leaves no doubt the culture is shaped by the coal they mine. It is in their songs, Coal Miner’s Daughter or Sixteen Tons, and their schools. Its presence sings in their rituals and screams in their fears. It runs in their veins—because it makes them bleed. Narrated by McMillion Sheldon, from the POV of a girl both loyal and inquisitive about the reign of what she calls “King Coal,” the film is an artwork and a tribute told with poetic and visual lyricism.
Loren King Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon does something remarkable with King Coal: she creates a poetic, personal account about something as alternately contentious and mundane as coal. Rooting her meditation on the hold that the “king” once had on her native West Virginia, Sheldon’s narration, coupled with archival footage and breathtaking contemporary photography, offers a meditation on how coal mining has impacted generations of her own family, the culture of a community and the psyche of the residents who still defer to the king. That identification can be seen in the young football players who touch a hunk of it as they run onto the field or the runners who get sprayed with coal dust as they participate in a local event. Coal may not be king anymore but it still rules hearts and minds in this slice of Appalachia.
Leslie Combemale Writer/director and West Virginian Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s documentary leans into the feeling of mystery and ubiquity that coal represents to the people of Appalachia, aided by the sometimes whimsical, sometimes lyrical visuals. Little is touched on around the opioid epidemic that continues to cripple the region, but that’s not the story she wants to tell. Hers is about how coal, its legacy and history, is woven into the fabric of the communities that pull it from the earth. I appreciated Sheldon going beyond her own experiences to include those from Black miners and their families. She makes the point in several ways that coal impacted the lives, for better or worse, of many Black, immigrant, and poor white families of the region.
Jennifer Merin Appalachian filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s hybrid documentary is a personal memoire in which she combines archival and current observational footage with creative storytelling to take us deep into the region where she spent her childhood and still has family roots. King Coal is a serenely meditative, exquisitely lyrical cinematic celebration of a specific American community and culture that is oft misunderstood. Read full review.
Nikki Fowler: Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s King Coal chronicles the circumstances of coal miners from the 1930s on with modern filmmaking as well as archival footage that documents their “soot covered lives” and all that is both beautiful and terrorizing from the past to the future in the coalfields of Appalachia. Beautifully narrated by Sheldon, King Coal follows Gabby and Lanie, two young girls, as they navigate a modern coal mining town, examining its past. Sheldon deconstructs nature, capitalism and humanity and the forces that influence and saturate a community that has placed coal miners on a military-esque pedestal as they have lost their lives to the mines. Death is an eerie underlying factor as the mines collapse on victims and as coal emits a literal and mental suffocating smoke screen. King Coal is beautifully shot with captivating colorful and vibrant cinematography that makes this not only an informative watch but a poetic and healing observation of a community just “trying to make a living” at some very high costs and the explosion of beauty and compassion found within.
Sandie Angulo Chen: The thoughtful, beautifully shot documentary King Coal is part labor of love, part narrative chronicle of the history of coal-mining in West Virginia and Central Appalachia from award-winning documentarian Elaine McMillion Sheldon. A native West Virginian and daughter of a coal miner (first in labor, and then in management), the filmmaker details the complicated interwoven relationship of the area with the titular King Coal. Educational and stylized, the documentary delves into a myriad of issues, from the emergence and prominence of the labor unions to the marginalization of Black miners. Another must-see documentary from a talented, intelligent filmmaker.
Liz Whittemore King Coal is perhaps one of the year’s most surprising films. Curren Sheldon’s awe-inspiring cinematography begs the largest screen you can find. The juxtaposition of striking visuals and director Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s soothing narration invites us into a dichotomy of thought. King Coal simultaneously plays like a dreamy narrative feature and an eye-opening documentary. Like New England farms bring locals out for apple picking and hay rides, so does coal in Appalachia. It shows itself in many forms; field trips, superstitious good luck charms, festivals, competitions, and funerals. It is ingrained in everything. The battle between cultural identity and the larger picture of economic handcuffing hit you square in the face. King Coal is an enlightening slice of Americana that will live with you long after the credits roll.
Cate Marquis King Coal is a visually-stunning, poetic portrait of the people of Appalachia, whose culture and land have been long shaped and dominated by King Coal and the mining industry. King Coal, like a medieval monarch, was both revered and feared, in Appalachia, but now as its economic power fades, writer/director/narrator Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who grew up in the area, looks at the history and the traditions this mountainous land, through the eyes of a pair of young girls, and the impact of coal has had on lives and landscapes. Graced with stunningly beautiful cinematography by Curren Sheldon, this combined cultural portrait and personal memoir about King Coal explores the lives of these hardworking people with warmth and an insider’s understanding, and drills down to find the truth of the extractive industry that brought jobs but little wealth to those who toiled in its mines, from their viewpoint. Sheldon creates a magical film that casts a spell on the audience as it immerses us, by way of girlhood memory, in this rich, deep culture in an ancient landscape, deeply entwined with a single extractive industry.
Title: King Coal
Director: Elaine McMillion Sheldon
Release Date: August 11, 2023
Running Time: 80 minutes
Screenwriters: Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Shane Boris, Heather Hannah, Logan Hill, Iva Radivojevic
Distribution Company: Requisite Media LLC
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
Edited by Jennifer Merin