Sundance 2023 ‘King Coal’ Review: A Spiritually Poetic Love Letter to Appalachian Land and People

'King Coal' is not merely a history; it is a ghost story, an exercise in remembrance, and a cinematic archive. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Approaching its documentary material from a pseudo-narrative, King Coal is dedicated to telling its audience about the real Appalachia: its mythology and magic and heart, found in both people and earth. King Coal is not merely a history; it is a ghost story, an exercise in remembrance, and a cinematic archive. 

Academy Award-nominated director Elaine McMillion Sheldon knows this ancient land down to its bones as she calls it home. It is her own lilting speech that guides the film and our attention. Her words are written beautifully and weave a folkloric journey through Appalachia. The film’s center point is a young flame-haired girl — Lanie, daughter of a coal miner. While Lanie learns how coal is woven into her flesh and family tapestry, Sheldon braids in additional tales and histories, including numerous coal miner memorializations, the labor-driven opioid crisis, and the physical scarring of the land. Sheldon observes communities that are simultaneously plagued and sustained by what she calls “the King” — the coal industry — with intimate detail. 

Coal miners are commemorated in innumerable sociocultural settings. Lanie ventures into the verdurous emerald forest that surrounds her home and works with her friend Gabby to assemble a school project about coal and its biochemical significance. A former miner recounts his past in a classroom, detailing a methane explosion that nearly killed him; the awe-struck young children request to hold the coal lump he brought with him, which they do with reverence. In the past, a mining company cuts down a 500-year-old tree while the community looks on.

As much as coal has clogged their lungs and killed their fathers, it has become essential to the people in King Coal. It runs in their blood as thick as it runs in the earth beneath the mountains. Coal is inextricably snarled with their identity, its cultural presence inescapable. This is what Sheldon wants to impart: the personal, complicated power that the King has long held over Appalachia, and how the people and land are bound together in the way they are haunted.  

The film is breathtakingly artistic as it captures a hallowed, immeasurable Appalachian beauty, reading the land much like a poem. It is viscerally engaged with the landscape and those who walk among it. Forested mountainscapes leaden with mist, the long-rolling Coal River meandering onward, revered woodlands draped in moss and shade — even the cinematography looks to be bathed in coal dust, its darkly striking color grading rich in blue-toned shadows. King Coal is attentive in how it balances that swathing beauty with a riddled history. Neither exists without the other in this film, and both are necessary to contextualize the lyrical mythology at the center. 

“When Papa was done digging coal, he dug graves,” Sheldon says, referring to her grandfather. In the end, she digs the grave, and this one is for King Coal itself, as she attempts to lay it (as well as its ownership over people) to rest with age-old Appalachian rituals centered on remembrance and hope. Sheldon does not tell us where the future should go, only that she sees a beautiful one.

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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