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What happens at the end of ‘King Coal’s’ reign? A documentary looks to the future

A group of people dressed in funeral black march along a road surrounded by green rolling hills.
Still from 'King Coal'
Requisite Media
A still from the film 'King Coal' shows a funeral procession. The part-documentary, part-fable reflects on the legacy of coal in Central Appalachia, while looking to the future.

A new film is screening across Central Appalachia.

Film director Elaine McMillion Sheldon calls King Coal part-documentary, part-fable.

It explores the way coal shaped not just the economy, but the identity of the region. Instead of a ball drop to ring in the new year, for example, one community hosts a coal drop. The film highlights a coal-focused beauty pageant, a coal 5k and a range of other coal-oriented cultural events.

But the role of coal is shifting, and the film considers what that means for the future of the region too.

McMillion Sheldon joined the Ohio Newsroom to talk about her inspiration for the film, and what she hopes it will accomplish.

King Coal will air on PBS POV in June. Until then it’s screening across Central Appalachia, including a stop in Columbus, on April 18.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

On what inspired the film

“We're all having conversations about what the future of, not only our energy, but our economies are going to be in Appalachia. I wanted the people of the coalfields to contribute to that conversation and not only talk about our history and our present, but have dreams for the future be infused in there as well. So it felt like the right time to have a civil dialogue around coal.”

On her personal connection

“There's four generations of coal workers in my family. And that's pretty normal. If you grew up where I grew up, it's not a rare thing to find. My brother still works in the industry, and my cousins as well. And it was seeing the decline in my own family — my own region — of not just their jobs, but of the sense of purpose and identity they had wrapped up in those jobs that made me want to make this film.”

On how coal shaped community identity

“I think it's easy to forget in 2024 how powerful coal was. Coal transformed our societies. It fueled the industrial revolution. It fueled wars. At one time, coal miners were likened to soldiers. They actually didn't have to serve overseas if they were mining coal. And so I think we sometimes forget in our day and age today, where we've moved past coal psychologically and from an environmental standpoint, of how important it was.

“I think that's what's missing in the dialogue: the communities don't know what their sense of importance is moving forward. And so the film is really helping start those conversations about reframing the human resources that are also important, not just looking at what's beneath our feet, but what's on top of the land that is also beautiful and wonderful that we could take advantage of and spring forward with.”

On the future of the coal industry

“The coal industry is certainly going to continue to exist, but it will be mostly ruled by technology and less workers. What I'm seeing on the ground now is just embracing new jobs. I’m seeing things such as local food chains being supported, I'm seeing things like solar and community-driven efforts to have more sustainable ways of living. So I think we're going to be looking at an economy that's not driven by a mono-economy, a big industry, but potentially smaller industries, based on a local level. So I think Appalachia will look very different in the future than it has looked in the past.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.