Films on Coal

Dirty Business
“Clean Coal” and the Battle for Our Energy Future

Documentary Center for Investigative Reporting, 2010 88 min. Dirty Business is the best and most comprehensive look at global dependence on coal, and explores some promising alternatives. The film by Peter Bull is built around the work of Jeff Goodell, who wrote the important book Big Coal. Goodell begins with the devastating impact of coal mining in Appalachia. He remembers when he first saw the impact of mountaintop removal mining: “It was like the first time you look into a slaughterhouse after you’ve spent a lifetime of eating hamburgers.” The film travels to Mesquite, Nev., where residents are fighting a coal-fired plant, and also to China to explore the health impact of coal there—an important piece of the story not included in any of the other films reviewed here. The film’s strength is its exploration of alternatives to coal—wind, solar thermal, increased energy efficiency through recycling “waste heat”—which makes this a valuable resource for science as well as social studies classes. The treatment of carbon dioxide sequestration may confuse students; the film simultaneously suggests that this is a terrible idea in North America but a good one in China. But, on the whole, Dirty Business is a fine and lively overview of a complicated issue.

The Last Mountain

Documentary 2011 PG 1hr 35m. This gripping documentary follows ordinary citizens in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley as they wage a campaign to prevent the infamous Massey Energy Company from expanding ruinous mountaintop removal mining operations in their community.See Full Review

Burning the Future:
Coal in America

Documentary 2008 NR 89 minutes. David Novack directs this compelling documentary that explores the effects the nation’s coal dependency has on the residents of the Appalachian states, a region plagued by toxic water, devastating floods and disappearing mountain ranges. Novack’s cameras observe as West Virginian activists mount a seemingly impossible battle against the U.S. government-backed coal industry to save their families, their communities and their way of life

Harlan County, U.S.A.

Documentary 1976 PG 103 minutes. Director Barbara Kopple’s film about the 1973 coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Ky., won a Best Documentary Oscar and was selected for the National Film Registry. Highlighting the struggles of families living in shacks with no indoor plumbing and enduring hazardous working conditions, the film details the conflict between the Eastover Mining Co. and the laborers determined to join the United Mine Workers of America.See Full Review

Deep Down

Documentary Independent Lens 2010 PG 58 minutes. This episode of the Emmy-winning public television series spotlights the controversy raging in the hamlet of Maytown, Ky., where residents find themselves deeply divided over a powerful coal company’s plans to expand operations in their town. While some citizens desperately need the financial windfall that new mining would bring, others rally their neighbors to protect the homes and community that the mine would destroy.


Documentary Frontline 2008 NR 116 minutes. “Frontline” producer Martin Smith investigates the environmental impact of big business. For years, corporations fought against compliance. That all changed when investors, advocacy groups and governments pressured companies into responsibility. But going green isn’t necessarily the norm in developing countries, as Smith reveals in his journey around the world to learn how businesses everywhere are dealing with the issue.

China: Undermined
Coal mines threaten villages

Documentary Frontline / World 2007. China’s churning economy runs on coal. But coal mining in China is a dangerous business, killing an average of thirteen miners every day. Digging for coal is also literally undermining whole villages, as Duane Moles reports in this Rough Cut video.

Broken Rainbow

Documentary 1985 NR 70 minutes. About the government-enforced relocation of thousands of Navajo Native Americans from their ancestral homes in Arizona. The Navajo were relocated to aid mining speculation in a process that began in the 1970s and continues to this day. This Oscar-winning documentary tells the story of the forced relocation of 12,000 Navajo Indians in Arizona that took place after U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watts sold inexpensive leases to developers in 1983. Claiming the land rightfully belonged to the Hopi, the U.S. government moved the Navajo residents to tract homes in other areas.


Drama 1987 PG-13.  Well-intentioned labor leader Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) arrives in Matewan, W. Va., to unionize the the coal mine workers. But his efforts to organize the coal company workers spark one of the most violent incidents in the history of the 1920-21 Coal Wars. Tensions grow between the minors and the company men, igniting a powder keg of racial hostility, corruption and betrayal. John Sayles directs; James Earl Jones also stars.



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