In a recent interview with Artspace, filmmaker and documentarian Adam Curtis critiques the contemporary art scene’s inability to foster real social change, due to what he sees as an overemphasis on individualist self-expression. Instead, Curtis urges, “one of radical art’s main aims should be to show us how power works, to pull it forward so you can see it.” In this age of Brexit and Trump, Curtis suggests that “one of the most beautiful things artists and journalists can do at this moment in time is to be sympathetic and understanding to the people who voted for Brexit and Trump, and then bring to the fore the invisible power structures that those people feel completely distanced from so that they know where power is.”
If these criteria for radical art were applied to the new documentary from directors Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman, Blood on the Mountain, then the film would pass with flying colors. A powerful look at the coal industry in Appalachia, Blood on the Mountain is already receiving strong reviews from mainstream and industry sources, and received the Best Documentary award at the 2015 Workers Unite Film Festival.
Blood on the Mountain is radical art because it shows us how the power of the coal industry works in an era of catastrophic climate change; a President-elect who denies global warming while pretending to be able to deliver new coal jobs; and a labor movement that is the weakest it has been for a hundred years. The film contextualizes the present situation in Appalachian coal country by telling the history of the radical labor movement in places like Logan County, West Virginia, where in 1921 the Battle of Blair Mountain was fought between some 10,000 armed coal miners and 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers hired by the coal companies. The Battle ended only when the United States Army intervened by presidential order.
Blair Mountain is powerfully utilized as a framing device for the whole film. The story of the Battle of Blair Mountain begins the film, while the current day struggle to preserve the historic mountain from the looming threat of mountaintop removal mining – which reduces whatever it touches to a Mordor-like wasteland – provides the capstone image.
Between these two scenes are a recounting of the history and a present-day look at coal-mining in the state. Notably, the decisive influence of the United Mine Workers struggling for better working conditions for the region’s miners throughout the early twentieth century gives way in the present to an organization that has suffered a major decline through union-busting, job loss, and automation.
The much-diminished state of the union today is shown to have a number of causes. Heavy mining has meant that efforts to dig for coal underground yield far less than they once did and automation reduces the need to pay your human workers: It is easier to blow the top off of a mountain through mountaintop removal mining than to send workers underground. Modern companies militantly oppose labor organizing by stoking the embattled atmosphere around Appalachian mining that they themselves have helped to create. Company rallies encourage miners to view environmentalists, leftists, and coastal elites as enemies to coal country, creating an “us vs. them” mentality around coal to replace the historic class consciousness that once led to events like Blair Mountain.
The powers that be exult in creating these lines of division. If the poor are kept isolated and separated in their different struggles, they cannot organize to overthrow our present economic system. One of the main pillars of any revived Poor People’s Campaign for today is uniting the poor and dispossessed across color lines and other lines of division, to renew the unfinished legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So it was heartbreaking to watch the scene in Blood on the Mountain where local coal miners from the union face off against environmentalist protesters, both sides shouting in each other’s faces and shoving their respective signs toward each other in what became an ideological street battle. The line of division, created and encouraged by the coal companies, was plain to see—it was literally an angry line between the two groups of protesters.
As I write this, the coal miners are being denied their rights to pensions and healthcare benefits by Congress, even amidst a surge of black lung cases across Appalachia. The growth in mountaintop removal mining continues to destroy the pristine forests and mountains of the region, damaging local water supplies and even threatening historic sites like Blair Mountain. The threat of catastrophic climate change looms over us all.
On Election Day, Trump rode to victory in Appalachia on a message of being a friend of coal. Yet there is no way to bring coal jobs back to these places. Blood on the Mountain powerfully makes clear that the history of coal is the history of capitalists’ disregard for human life, workers’ rights, and the environment, and the history of their divide-and-conquer tactics used to break unions, split communities, and prevent organized resistance to their regime.
When the inevitable happens, and the new administration can’t deliver on returning coal jobs to Appalachia, what will we offer the coal miners? Some on the left offer only an “I told you so” mentality to those who they blame for voting the wrong way in November. Yet we know from history that playing into this kind of division only helps those in power. Instead, we must offer solidarity, a recognition that their struggle is our own, and the possibility of a new Poor People’s Campaign—uniting across lines of division to bring the fight to those who are really responsible for causing our present state of affairs. Instead of struggling against each other, we need to see environmentalists and miners, union folks and the jobless, march hand in hand against the companies who never cared for the land or for its workers.
As the film ultimately asks, will we join together in another Battle of Blair Mountain, or will we let the coal companies blot out even that event from history, all in the name of more profit?
Blood on the Mountain is out now in theaters around the country. Support the filmmakers to get the film, along with educational guides and curricula, out to as many people as possible by donating at kickstarter.com/projects/478409974/blood-on-the-mountain-film-outreach-campaign.