Review: ‘King Coal’ (2023), starring Lanie Marsh and Gabrielle Wilson

August 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gabrielle Wilson and Lanie Marsh in “King Coal” (Photo courtesy of Drexler Films/Cottage M/ Fishbowl Films)

“King Coal” (2023)

Directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Culture Representation: Taking place in the central Appalachian region of the United States, the documentary “King Coal” features a group of predominantly white people (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class and who are connected to the coal mining industry in some way.

Culture Clash: People in this region rely on coal for their economies and lifestyles, even though the coal mining industry is on the decline.

Culture Audience: “King Coal” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in watching a documentary that offers a specific point of view of American traditions but the documentary doesn’t follow a traditional format.

Lanie Marsh in “King Coal” (Photo courtesy of Drexler Films/Cottage M/Fishbowl Films)

“King Coal” is a visually artistic and poetic achievement in documentary filmmaking. In telling this intimate story about Appalachian coal mining culture, director/narrator Elaine McMillion Sheldon gives a cinematic equivalent of an entrancing mosaic. “King Coal” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Sheldon (who is not seen on screen in “King Coal”) wrote the bulk of the documentary’s voiceover narration, which sounds like a combination of an ode and an observation. The documentary is about the region where Sheldon was born and raised, so she admits her bias up front but also has enough clarity to see and describe things for what they are. A caption in the beginning of “King Coal” states: “This film takes place in Central Appalachia, filmed in parts of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, and every square inch of my home state of West Virginia.”

In telling this region’s story of how coal mining is essential to this Appalachian culture, Sheldon chose not to have “King Coal” follow the usual documentary formula of mixing archival footage with exclusive new footage. Instead, “King Coal” has glimpses into the lives of the residents who are shown in the documentary. No one in the documentary has captions identifying them by name when they’re on screen. Their names are listed in the end credits.

An active and inquisitive girl named Lanie Marsh (who was 12 years old when she was filmed for “King Coal”) is shown throughout the documentary. Marsh (who has red hair, just like Sheldon) was obviously chosen because she probably reminds Sheldon of herself when Sheldon was that age. Sheldon pretty much admits it in a part of the voiceover narration when Sheldon wonders out loud if Marsh is thinking the same things that she used to think when she grew up in that area. Sheldon remembers that in her own childhood, the first time she heard Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” she “welled up with pride” because she thought Lynn has written the song for her.

Marsh has a best friend named Gabrielle Wilson (also 12 years old when “King Coal” was filmed), who is quieter than Marsh but no less attentive to her surroundings. The documentary shows them taking walks in the area, dancing in various places, looking for coal in a creek, or hanging out in each other’s homes. Wilson and Marsh not only represent Sheldon’s wistful look back at her youth but also represent the generation coming of age in this region that will experience more phasing out of fossil fuels for energy, as the climate change crisis alters the environment.

The parents of Marsh and Wilson are not part of this story, although one scene briefly shows a hint of what their families are like. Marsh and Wilson are talking at someone’s home when Marsh asks Wilson if coal mining is important to Wilson’s family. Wilson hesitates and says, “I don’t know.” When Wilson asks Marsh if coal is important to Marsh’s family, Marsh says without hesitation, “Yes.”

“King Coal” begins and ends with a funeral, as a way to remind viewers that coal mining is a dangerous job. A funeral procession is seen from a distance in the movie’s opening scene, while the outdoor funeral ceremony is shown up close during one of movie’s last scenes. These are somber but realistic bookends to a cinéma vérité-styled documentary that also shows people enjoying their lives as best as they can in the area that they call home.

Death is a hovering presence in “King Coal.” Coal is presented as a source that can give economic life but can take human lives as a result of mining for coal. The only deaths mentioned in this documentary are the deaths of coal miners. Sheldon mentions that her brother is part of the fourth generation of coal miners in her family. Her grandfather (who is shown in the documentary) is a retired coal miner who is now a gravedigger—yet another reference to death.

Sheldon describes in the voiceover narration what it’s like to mine for coal: “Going underground is like going to space: You’re the first person to touch that piece of earth.” She also says that miners, more than most other people, are attuned to the sights, sounds and smells that can kill them. Later in the documentary, it’s shown what some of the region’s rituals are when a coal miner in a community dies: Stop the clocks, turn the mirrors around, open the windows, toll the bells, and build the casket.

One of the documentary’s scenes takes place in a tattoo shop, where a tattoo artist is shown engraving a tattoo on a customer who is a coal miner. The tattoo artist tells his customer that he was briefly a coal miner, but couldn’t take the stress of knowing that the job could kill him. The tattoo artist said he lasted only three days on the job as a coal miner before quitting, because he says he was unnerved when he saw an enormous roof on a mine shaft collapse near him.

“King Coal” gets its title from Sheldon repeating in her narration that in this region, coal has been the king that rules people’s lives. This king has lost a lot of its power, but it is still feared and needed, she explains. “He’s not dead or alive—he’s a ghost,” she adds. Sheldon says that from an early age, she learned not to speak out publicly against King Coal, or else she would be considered an ungrateful traitor.

Sheldon comments, “For most, coal is a dirty polluter, an unglamorous black rock. But for those of us who grew up with it, coal is intrinsic.” The documentary shows how coal is inescapable as part of people’s everyday lives in this region. A man is shown being tested on his shoveling skills, as he shoveling coals from one pile to another in front of a small crowd, in what appears to be a job audition. In another scene, during a running marathon, contestants have coal soot thrown at them by bystanders, as part of a tradition.

A retired coal miner—dressed in a coal mining outfit and his face smeared with soot for dramatic effect—is shown giving a speaking appearance about coal mining in a school classroom of children who are about 9 or 10 years old. The documentary also shows a snippet of the Miss King Coal Beauty Pageant, where eager young women talk about being role models and having pride for their coal community. There are also scenes of families and other people enjoying themselves at the 28th Annual West Virginia Coal Festival. And yes, there are the expected scenes of coal miners doing their work.

“King Coal” has stunning cinematography, especially in the outdoor scenes that show the natural beauty, as well as some of the environmental scars, of this region. This is not a documentary that goes in-depth about the business of coal mining. Some viewers might be bored with “King Coal” if they’re expecting to see a lot of personal drama, big conflicts or some kind of investigative documentary. If “King Coal” is a love letter to Sheldon’s native Appalachia and coal mining culture, then it’s a love letter that acknowledges the flaws along with the strengths.

Drexler Films, Cottage M and Fishbowl Films released “King Coal” in New York City on August 11, 2023. The movie has a weekly expansion to cinemas in more U.S. cities throughout August and September 2023.

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