Writer-director John Sayles specializes in recasting American history through the eyes of overlooked working-class heroes, and his story of striking West Virginia coal miners in the 1920s is one of his most polished and accessible achievements. Based on a bloody battle in the town of Matewan, the film examines labor unions from a critical perspective, shedding light on racial and cultural attitudes that hampered the movement. James Earl Jones gives a powerful, minimalist performance as the miners' leader. Sayles appears in a minor role, as he often does in his own films, as a conservative minister who preaches against the union organizers. Thanks to cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the film is visually rich. Sayles's dialogue and the period settings and costumes are wonderfully authentic, and the customary low budget of a Sayles movie never seems obvious.
by Michael Betzold review