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What does it mean to be West Virginian in a post-coal world?

What does it mean to be West Virginian in a post-coal world?

Lanie Bayless Marsh and Gabrielle “Gabby” Wilson IN A W.VA. FIELD. PHOTO COURTESY OF REQUISITE MEDIA.

In "King Coal" on PBS, two middle-school girls grapple with their identities inside a state that’s doing the same.

As a descendant of West Virginia coal miners, two-time Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon knows coal. She knows it put food on the table growing up and that it continues to bring pride to her family. But she also knows that the fast-fading industry haunts her home state like a steely-eyed specter.

“The coal market has been in decline for decades now,” said Elaine, who also works as an assistant professor in the cinema studies program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “But that doesn’t mean the culture around coal has declined.”

Elaine explores this deeply entrenched culture in her latest feature-length film, “King Coal.” Premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary tells the story of coal through the eyes of Lanie Bayless Marsh and Gabrielle “Gabby” Wilson, two middle school girls who are also descendants of West Virginia coal miners.

In one scene, the two girls dance in a coal yard. In another, they attend a ceremony honoring men and women lost to the mines. Later, while sitting on a bench making bracelets, they speak of the future. Maybe they’ll become lawyers. Or nurses. Or perhaps FBI agents.   

percussive dancer Becky Hill TEACHES FLATFLOOTING TO W.VA. TEENS. in this exclusive clip, SHE demonstrates THIS TRADITIONAL DANCE while gus Tritsch fiddles at the Augusta Heritage Festival in ELKINS, W.VA. VIDEO COURTESY OF REQUISITE MEDIA.

“It’s a coming-of-age moment,” Elaine said. “These young girls are figuring out who they are in a region that’s also trying to figure out who it is.”

In many ways, that’s the crux of the film: What is West Virginia and who are its people without coal? Elaine poses this question towards the documentary’s end. As the camera pans over verdant hills and hollers, she muses: “Long ago, this region was defined by our geography — these mountains. Then, by our geology — coal. We were formed by these things. And now?”

The question goes unanswered. But Elaine wants to remind viewers that “it is up to us to come up with new ways to be.”

Deeply personal, “King Coal” is unlike anything she has produced before.


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“In the past, I have made observational films about other people,” said Elaine, who is known for works like “Heroin(e)” and “Recovery Boys,” two tear-jerking Netflix originals that investigate Appalachia’s opioid crisis, and “Tutwiler,” a film that offers an intimate look at motherhood inside one of America’s most notorious prisons.

These documentaries are profound — countless awards and nominations attest to that. ("Heroin(e)" won the 2018 News and Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Short Documentary. Elaine also received an Emmy for a collaboration with Sesame Street that illustrated how the opioid crisis affects children.) But none of Elaine’s projects have been as intimate as “King Coal.”

“Every male in my family has at some point worked in and around coal,” she said. “There's a sense of belonging associated with the industry, and I wanted to make a film that acknowledged the past while asking different questions for the future.”

“King Coal” is the season opener for the 37th season of POV on PBS, the country’s longest-running nonfiction series. The documentary premieres on Monday, June 24, 2024 at 10pm EST and will be available to stream until Tuesday, December 3, on and the PBS app.

Lanie Bayless Marsh and filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon. PHOTO COURTESY OF REQUISITE MEDIA.

Lauren Stepp is a lifestyle journalist from the mountains of North Carolina. She writes about everything from fifth-generation apple farmers to mixed-media artists, publishing her work in magazines across the Southeast. In her spare time, Lauren mountain bikes, reads gritty southern fiction, and drops her g's.