Coal miner stereotypes shattered in humanizing 'Black Rock Blues' documentary
In President Donald Trump's inauguration speech this past January, the newly-elected commander in chief shared a message aimed at America's defeated and downtrodden, saying, "From mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again."
Trump made this promise to many Americans while on the 2016 campaign trail, but he perhaps courted none with the vow of overdue consideration more so than coal miners working in one of the country's most fragile industries.
A new Rated Red production, "Black Rock Blues," features one such coal miner and father of three, who -- despite being laid off twice in one year -- says things have been "more hopeful" since Trump won the presidency.
Behind the scenes: The making of "Black Rock Blues"
25-year-old Anson Core works at a mine just outside of Wheeling, West Virginia, about a 20 minute drive from his family home in Shadyside, Ohio. In Shadyside, Anson lives with his wife of five years, Brittany, and their three (soon to be four) children among the rolling green hills of Ohio's River Valley.
"I never wanted anything big and extravagant," says Anson. "Just to settle down, work, make an honest living, come home, see my family and do it all over again."
"Black Rock Blues" Executive Producer and Director Tommy Davis says his team wanted to "shatter stereotypes" of what coal miners look like, and started reaching out to churches in search of young miners willing to tell their story. He says he was lucky enough to get connected to Anson and Brittany.
"We were looking to do a story focused on the Heartland and the people affected by the changing economic times," Davis says. "When you typically read about Appalachia or the Rust Belt, or see documentaries, it's typically the standard that people have anticipations of what they're going to encounter in these stories. We wanted to find out who these people really are."
Davis' team manages to fit a series of remarkably human moments into a 15-minute documentary. From the daily pill Anson takes to keep him from randomly falling asleep, to scenic shots of him riding his motorcycle on isolated country roads and playing with his kids in their picturesque neighborhood, the viewer is presented many personal elements that showcase, as Davis puts it, "what a family looks like when the bread winner is working in the coal mine."
These mostly-luminous scenes are starkly contrasted with Anson's description of the coal mine as "the darkest dark you've ever seen."
In February, President Trump signed legislation undoing an Obama administration-era regulation protecting waterways from coal mining waste, which Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have said threaten coal jobs. During a March 20 speech in Kentucky, President Trump reiterated his loyalty to coal miners, saying his administration is "working on new executive actions to save our coal industry, and to save our wonderful coal miners from continuing to be put out of work."
According to the EPA, coal accounts for about 77 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector, despite the resource representing only 39 percent of electricity generated nationwide. Former President Barack Obama focused his efforts on the issue of greenhouse gas emissions in multiple ways while in office, most poignantly in implementing the Clean Power Plan -- a regulation aimed at curbing carbon pollution from polluting power plants.
The New York Times reports that Trump is expected in coming days to announce his plans to reverse most, if not all, of Obama's climate change legacy. Obama's Clean Power Plan was constructed to shut down hundreds of heavily polluting coal plants and freeze construction of new coal plants, and a stripping away of that action could be seen as a big win by struggling miners.
Trump ran on this platform, and in turn won the votes of working class people throughout the country, and this was no different in the Ohio River Valley. Trump won 61 percent of votes where Anson works in West Virginia's Ohio County, and 67 percent of votes in their home Belmont County in Ohio.
"I think a lot of people around here voted for Trump because they want job security and they're sick of worrying about losing their jobs," Brittany says. "I always worry, but hopefully things will start looking up since the election."
Davis, who has previously directed documentaries for both VICE and HBO, says the trick to telling this story in an unadulterated capacity was staying objective and talking to Anson and Brittany as people.
"No judgements can be made, especially on this topic ... with the coal industry being talked about," said Davis. "It's all about observation and talking based on what they say, so that we can stay free of any judgments ... and they can be real."
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's annual coal report, there were an average 65,971 coal employees working at underground and surface mines in 2015 -- a 12 percent decrease from 74,931 in 2014. EIA notes this is the lowest number of coal employees on record since the group began collecting data in 1978.
While coal's future is decided in Washington, back home in Shadyside, Anson says he's focused on his kids and his families.
"You never know what's gonna happen in the next year," Anson says. "I'm just gonna ride it out 'till the end [with coal], or into the sunset. Either of the two."