A poetic ode to the blue ridges of Central Appalachia, King Coal often evokes an IMAX educational film in its scope, space, and presence. The film explores the complex history of coal as a specter that looms over the region. The precious rock is celebrated throughout, the picture never veering off-course to engage in a discussion of contemporary politics. It’s instead built on West Virginia itself, a land still tied to mythology in some ways. “Who are we, without a king,” Lanie Marsh (the young star of the picture) asks.
Written and directed by West Virginia native Elaine McMillion Sheldon (who also narrates)––with additional writing by Shane Boris, Logan Hill, Iva Radivojevic, and Heather Hannah––King Coal is a departure from the filmmaker’s previous vérité documentaries Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys, which explore a darker side of her home state. The opioid crisis is a byproduct of the hard labor celebrated throughout this picture, where coal miners are publicly thanked for their contributions and memorialized through dance, celebrations, and high school football games.
The film opens and closes with a funeral, and contains various celebrations and milestones throughout: from a New Year’s celebration where a giant lump of coal is dropped in a town square to the 28th Annual West Virginia Coal Festival. Miners visit classrooms to talk about the old days, grandsons of miners keep their stories alive in tattoos, and Sheldon as narrator muses about the status of the 12,000 miners working in the state today.
Beautifully lensed in a variety of aspect ratios by Curren Sheldon, King Coal incorporates some historic footage but mostly focuses on the state of the region, pondering briefly what might have been had it not been discovered (in North America) along the banks of the Coal River in 1742. The state soon became the 12th wealthiest state in the country, offering solid middle-class jobs for many. Most of these jobs would eventually be erased in favor of automation.
It offers no easy answers while spinning an evocative web of ideas, treating the mineral and all that follows as a religion complete with sacrifices. One reading is that the film, serving as a companion to Recovery Boys and Heroin(e), brews with anger: some of these answers are easy if only those venerating the past would look to a future beyond the state. But leaving home is difficult, as Sheldon tells us. As a well-made essay film, King Coal unpacks a hold on the region that would be difficult to describe, lacking the same impact in text. Onscreen, it is a soulful requiem for the middle-class.
King Coal premiered at Sundance 2023.