King Coal

King Coal

Elaine McMillion Sheldon


Why does coal remain a key point of identification for many people when mining is seemingly an outdated phenomenon? In her film, Elaine McMillion Sheldon searches for the answer to a question facing both Germany’s Ruhr region and West Virginia in the US. At the places where structural change carves cracks in biographies, the film embarks on a search for evidence of the feelings that people seem to connect with coal.

The coal heaps appear randomly in the landscape, the disused conveyor bridges dot the background of the image next to a sports field. The crumbling wall in the town features the image of a miner, and on New Year’s Eve a coal stone rings in the New Year. As if in passing, the film captures how coal is intertwined with people’s everyday lives. In the guise of a fable, the film gets to the heart of the history of coal mining as well as up close to the people who shaped it and were shaped by it. In a blaze of audiovisual intensity, the film-maker no longer simply writes the story of the black rock and its economic achievements – she elevates it to a story of the people. What sound do we associate with coal? What individual family memories – racisms, traditions or acknowledgements – are associated with mining? While friends Gabby and Lanie are learning about coal mining in their town for the first time at school, they are also shown a future that gazes forward, dancing and liberated – because as the narrator announces at the beginning: »Every new beginning starts with an end.«

Director / Script

Elaine McMillion Sheldon


Curren Sheldon


Iva Radivojević, Elaine McMillion Sheldon


Alexandra Fehrman

Sound Design

Benjamin L. Cook


Bobak Lotfipour


Celia Rowlson-Hall


Gabrielle Wilson, Lanie Marsh, Doy Leon Russell, Heather Hannah


Shane Boris, Diane Becker, Peggy Drexler, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Cottage M, Fishbowl Films, Drexler Films, Requisite Media


Curren Sheldon, Molly Born


Requisite Media

Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Elaine McMillion Sheldon grew up in West Virginia and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. She studied journalism and fine arts and after graduating worked for newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post. Her first documentary film Lincoln County Massacre was released in 2011, earning her the Peabody Award. She received an Oscar nomination in 2018 for Heroin(e), a short documentary film about the opioid crisis in America. Filmmaker Magazine named her one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film”. King Coal premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Films by Elaine McMillion Sheldon
2017 | Heroin(e) 2017 | Hollow 2013 | Lincoln County Massacre 2011