In the documentary film “King Coal,” director Elaine McMillion Sheldon chronicles the enduring traditions and customs that pay tribute to the once-dominant natural resource of central Appalachia. Through a combination of archival footage and compelling narration, Sheldon explores how the discovery of coal brought about an economic boom and the rise of a thriving middle class in the 20th century, despite the labor struggles that accompanied it. However, she also acknowledges the devastating impact of this fossil fuel on the environment. The film serves as both a nostalgic elegy for a way of life and an examination of the climate crisis by showcasing the charred remnants of these rural landscapes.
Yet, “King Coal” is more than just a recollection of the past. By following the lives of two young girls, Lanie Marsh and Gabrielle Wilson, Sheldon also delves into the future prospects of this region, which, like many industrial areas in the United States, is still grappling with envisioning its own economic possibilities.
Rather than providing concrete answers, Sheldon’s film aims to offer closure through its poignant and poetic rhythms. The healing process in “King Coal” takes various forms, from staging a symbolic funeral for the personified King Coal to the sharing of oral histories by local residents in different Appalachian states.
Sheldon also captures the beauty, potential, and sorrow of the region in its surrounding mountain ranges, whether it be the lush forests and rolling hills or the coal-laden barges on the rivers. However, in this melancholic and thoughtfully crafted cinematic essay, the focus is primarily on the people who remain trapped in the suffocating tunnels of the past. Their stories and experiences become the heart of the narrative.
“King Coal” is an unrated film with a runtime of 1 hour and 20 minutes. It is currently being shown in theaters.
In summary, Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “King Coal” documents the rich history and devastating consequences of the coal industry in central Appalachia. Through its exploration of the past and contemplation of the future, the film serves as a eulogy for a bygone way of life and a reflection on the urgent climate crisis. It is a poignant and visually captivating examination of a region struggling to find its footing in an ever-changing world.