In her personal documentary “King Coal,” the director Elaine McMillion Sheldon records the modern traditions — beauty pageants, local football games and modest festivals — that commemorate the once dominant natural resource that powered central Appalachia. Through archival footage and vivid narration, Sheldon notes how the discovery of the precious black rock led to an economic boom that inspired a vibrant middle class in the 20th century, born from labor struggle. She also observes how the poisonous fossil fuel destroys the environment. The film is both a cumulative eulogy for a way of life and an examination of the climate crisis through witnessing the charred remains of these rural landscapes.
“King Coal,” however, isn’t merely a remembrance. By following two girls, Lanie Marsh and Gabrielle Wilson, Sheldon also considers the future of this region, which, like many industrial corners of the United States, is still struggling to imagine its own economic possibilities.
Sheldon’s film doesn’t answer what lies ahead. Rather the poignantly poetic rhythms and wistful insights of “King Coal” are meant to provide closure. Healing in her documentary can take form in on-the-nose metaphors, such as the film staging a literal funeral for the anthropomorphized King Coal, or move through subtler means, like the sharing of oral history by locals in several Appalachian states.
Sheldon also locates the beauty, potentiality and sorrow of the region to its surrounding mountain ranges, from forested rolling hills to the mounds of coal on river barges. But in this melancholic, thoughtfully attuned cinematic essay, no mountain is more important than the people who are still confined to the claustrophobic tunnels of the past.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. In theaters.
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