West Virginia is wild and wonderful, but the state is also one of the poorest and most environmentally devastated in the United States. It wasn’t always this way, though. Devil Put the Coal in the Ground, from directors Lucas Sabean and Peter Hutchison, uses Appalachia’s rich history of oral storytelling to look at the coal industry’s effects on West Virginia.
The state has long been at the center of a debate surrounding America’s use of coal, a discussion that has only been made more contentious at the national level with former president Donald Trump championing “clean coal” and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s numerous blocks against climate policy. Of course, it’s important to transition to a renewable energy-sourced power grid, but Sabean and Hutchison’s documentary details just how complicated that transition will be, especially for West Virginians, many of whom rely on the coal industry for work.
Sabean and Hutchison interview 10 different people throughout the documentary, whose roles include addict, nurse, activist, mother, judge, Vietnam veteran, politician, lawyer, merchant, and doctor. Each of these people offer a unique perspective into the issue and are never forced to fit into the role that they’ve been given by the documentarians. Instead, the film uses the titles to contextualize their experiences and their roles within the community.
Although some interviewees are more memorable than others — for example, the mother Lisa Henderson — all interviewees are able to touch on different facets of the crisis that West Virginians face. From workers’ rights to public health to environmentalism to the opioid crisis, the directors ensure that these stories work together to create a cohesive narrative picture.
The story is depicted more so as a humanitarian crisis than anything else. Shots of empty, run-down towns, broken mountaintops, and massive coal plants let audiences feel the effects of the coal industry themselves — even if just for a little bit. These shots do more than just incite an emotional response, though. They’re also a reminder that this is not just an environmental issue. It’s a justice issue.
Additionally, the filmmakers do a great job of balancing the history of coal mining in West Virginia, the health problems faced by many miners and their families, and the opioid epidemic, which is also linked to the crisis. In tying together these three pieces, Sabean and Hutchison are able to effectively show just how complicated this issue is. Coal mining in West Virginia is not coal-is-bad-and-that’s-that.
In many ways, this should be required viewing for environmentalists, especially those unfamiliar with West Virginia’s role in coal mining and the effects the coal industry has had on West Virginia. The people in these coal towns have a long tradition of living there. As the interviewees often say, Appalachian folks are tied closely together with strong community bonds.
That said, the film definitely looks at the environmental, climate, and humanitarian ramifications of the coal industry. Interviews with Henderson look closely at the combination of these issues, especially when she discusses her own family.
Devil Put the Coal in the Ground is incredibly transparent about the evils of our capitalist society and what these massive industries and corporations do to regular people — without remorse or responsibility. Paula Jean Swearengin, the politician, summed up the horror of West Virginia and the country’s lack of oversight to these industries in saying, “If another country came in here and blew up our mountains and poisoned our water, we’d go to war…but they can do it because they have a permit.”