Atmospheric, authentic ‘King Coal’ to have local premiere at The Neon



With four generations of coal mining in her family, West Virginia native Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s perspectives on coal – its storied past, complicated present and transitional future – is deeply personal. The Academy Award-nominated director’s authentic, cautious and poetic reflections provide the beautifully atmospheric framework for her strikingly introspective documentary “King Coal,” which will have its local premiere Wednesday, Oct. 18 at The Neon in downtown Dayton.

“King Coal” premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. It tackles the titular subject with a keen understanding of its effects within Central Appalachia. A lyrical tapestry of a place and people, the film meditates, gently and unhurriedly, on the complex history and future of the coal industry, the communities it has shaped, and the myths it has created.

The Wall Street Journal praised Sheldon for doing “a breathtakingly expressive job of capturing the strangeness, the beauty and the devastation of her homeland.”

“I’ve been wanting to make a film that digs into the sense of psyche, identity, all the things we don’t really talk about when we talk about a beyond-coal future,” says Sheldon, who received an Academy Award nomination for her 2017 documentary “Heroin(e).” “Coal was the main source of employment in the early days when my family began coal mining, but it’s been declining obviously, which has led me to observe what it means for my family to come to terms with what coal has meant to them, the land, the people and the community.”



Filmed in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, Northa Carolina, Tennessee and “every square inch” of West Virginia, “King Coal” centers around the aspect of coal not just being a resource, but a way of life, imagining the ways a community can re-envision itself. The storytelling also pinpoints the Black experience within the coal industry, particularly the racial inequity within the United Mine Workers of America.

“So many communities have their sense of belonging built around the existence of coal,” says Sheldon. “This film is trying to recognize the cultural power coal has and answering the question – what’s next? Change is inevitable and it’s going to be slow but we have to start making steps forward together.”

From beauty pageants featuring tributes to deceased coal miners to a classroom of elementary students fascinated by a coal miner’s story, the film is filled with reflection. It also contains a coming-of-age narrative among two girls learning their coal history while questioning their own role in the region moving forward.

“These girls, 11 and 12 years old, are asking questions about their future while they are participating in the coal culture around them,” says Sheldon. “They dance in front of coal piles and (attend) coal memorials. The story of coal and the conversations about coal are so highly divisive and political. So, we wanted to soften the edges of those conversations and maybe provide a new way of thinking by seeing coal through the kids’ eyes because they are the future.”



The premiere will be hosted by Academy Award-winning documentarian Steven Bognar (“American Factory”) of Yellow Springs. As a passionate advocate for documentaries and a longtime fan of Sheldon’s work, he is thrilled to bring this important story to Dayton.

“Elaine is a very talented filmmaker and ‘King Coal’ is one of the best films of the year,” Bognar says. “The film is richly cinematic and goes so emotionally deep about Appalachian identity and how that has been shaped by the coal industry and how it will grow beyond the coal industry in years to come. It’s an environmentally-themed film that in no way feels like an environmentally-themed film, which is one of the reasons why I love it. It’s like a ghost story and the ghost is King Coal, a personification of an industry that has shaped so many lives.”

Sheldon is scheduled to participate in a Q&A following the screening but will appear via Zoom because she’s “mere days from giving birth.” Her due date is Oct. 25 but she still plans to be available to engage the audience on Wednesday. She’s very excited to have Bognar host the screening and for Dayton to see her film.

“Steve is such a supporter of his filmmaking community so to have him host the screening is an honor,” she says. “Steve is a mentor and Julia (Reichert) was also a mentor and a big influence in my life. This film has been seen in many cities across the country and Dayton is a really important Ohio town to have a conversation about coal.”


What: “King Coal”

Where: The Neon, 130 E. Fifth St., Dayton

When: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 18

Cost: $12.50

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