King Coal elegantly depicts the culture, community and history surrounding coal mining in the Appalachian region of America.
A lump of coal in your stocking means one thing for most children: you’re on the naughty list. Even more widely, coal bears this trademark ugliness and negativity for many people. One Appalachian in King Coal notes how it is often seen as an unglamorous polluter, and yet for the residents of this expansive American region, this element is intrinsic. King Coal shows in eloquent, mesmerising fashion how coal is a way of life, not just commercially but culturally too.
The deep love that Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon (Heroin(e)) has for this region is clear. Her statement at the start of King Coal notes that her documentary takes place in Central Appalachia, including but not limited to parts of Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and her own home state of West Virginia. Sheldon explores this vast area’s deep history of coal mining via a young daughter of a miner called Lanie Marsh. This youngster’s mature and composed narration grounds King Coal in its detailed setting. Part exploration documentary, part history lesson, King Coal has an awe-inspiring sense of magical realism too, with Marsh’s commentaries also adding to this dreamscape.
The titular king owns everything, Marsh states, an omnipresent, omniscient ghost who is tied to not just the coal mining aspect of these communities, but to their everyday lives and their history. We experience the same educational journey that Marsh embarks on, her inquisitive nature infectious. Curren Sheldon’s (Heroin(e)) cinematography allows the scenery to speak for itself, with Sheldon valuing wide shots and static framing to give the natural world ample space to breathe. King Coal is beautiful, heavily sensory cinema, and an elegant documentary sketched with love and care.
Whilst always engaging on a sensorial level, King Coal falters in its structure. A weak foundation causes scenes to fade in and out without clear cohesion from one to the next. On the whole, King Coal operates with a certain looseness that simultaneously enhances its expressive, meditative tones and diminishes the resonance of its stories and themes. The history lessons it tells are largely engaging, although interest isn’t always maintained successfully, despite its short 78-minute runtime. Despite these shortcomings, the world that King Coal depicts is always alluring in its detail.
Perhaps most interestingly, Sheldon, along with her team of contributing writers, acknowledges both the positives and negatives of coal. One character states how it has brought shame for some and pride for others, that it has both provided and stolen. The landscape is undoubtedly affected by the practice, with mountains replaced by mines. The constant threat of death that every miner lives with is also referenced. Throughout King Coal, Sheldon always acts with empathy, but also recognises the region’s vast and notably complex history. More screen time for these aspects would have strengthened her documentary.
King Coal is never not evocative. A memorable funeral speech from a resident at the end of the film references how coal is elemental, and therefore innocent of any malice it causes. It is how it is engaged that matters. Bobak Lotfipour’s (The Place That Makes Us) sensational original score underlines Marsh’s fascinating journey of reflection and discovery, as we witness a vital part of America that is still strong, but noticeably struggling. Sheldon’s documentary might lack a clear structure and suitably explored themes, but the driving force of intense love and deep attachment for this subject that she infuses into King Coal is remarkable to witness.
King Coal will be released in select US theaters from August 11, 2023, with more dates to be announced soon.