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Black Canaries

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Isolated, desperate, and haunted by his coal-stained birthright, Father continues his daily descent into the accursed Maple mine—even after it has crippled his ancestors and blinded his youngest son.

Set in 1907 and based on director Jesse Kreitzer’s own coalmining heritage, Black Canaries is a powerful meditation on patrimony, loyalty, and love. The film’s solid and dark photography shot on splendid 35mm film sets the sombre and tranquil tone on an otherwise marking storyline.

My great-grandfather Thomas Clarence (“T.C.”) Chapman was a coal miner from Maple, Iowa—a small town that dried up along with the coal in the 1920s. At 11, he lost his father and went to work in the mines as a breaker boy, sorting shale from coal. At 30, he befriended labor pioneer John L. Lewis and fought to strengthen unions and protections for miners and their families. He spent the rest of his life as a mine safety inspector and died bedridden in 1962. Growing up, that’s all I knew about my mother’s Midwestern roots.

Compelled to know more, I moved to Iowa in 2013 and spent the next three years unearthing stories of my family’s past. Extended relatives welcomed me with open arms and shared childhood memories, drawers filled with old photos, family keepsakes and relics from Iowa’s coal camps. Together we drudged through state and county archives to piece together a lineage fragmented by time and corroded by coal dust. A culmination of genealogical research, Black Canaries is an ode to ancestors, honoring not only my own family’s history, but a collective cultural heritage forged in the blackened depths of Americana.

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