Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

“When I watched him die and suffer like he did with that black lung disease, I knew that something could be done about it. I told myself then, if I ever get the opportunity to get those coal operators, I will.”

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Synopsis:
A group of poverty-stricken Kentucky coal miners seeking representation by the United Mine Workers go on strike until the Duke Power Company agrees to sign a contract with them.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “stirring, Oscar-winning documentary by Barbara Kopple” — “covering a successful, bitterly fought 13-month strike in 1973-74 at the Brookside mine in Harlan, Kentucky” — is “one of the most incisive portraits of America and the ever struggling labor movement”, and remains “as exciting as good fiction”. He describes how “Kopple and [her] crew befriended the striking miners and were allowed to enter their company-built shacks (which have no bathrooms) and their jail cells when they were arrested for obstructing scab workers who were driving to the mine; to attend organizational meetings; and to join them on the dangerous picket lines”. As Peary points out, Kopple “makes no attempt to disguise she’s on the miners’ side;” indeed, she and her crew put their own lives at risk numerous times. Peary writes that “emphasis is placed on the many women who picket on behalf of the male miners (who were limited to six pickets) and the old women who emotionally relate tragic stories about the suffering their fathers, husbands, and sons have endured as non-union miners”. In addition to current footage, we also “learn about the miners/people of Harlan County, their violent history, and their hope”. He asserts that “we are most impressed by their bravery, their obstinacy about not giving in, and, though they aren’t that educated, their tremendous grasp of the issues that brought about a strike”.

Peary’s review is spot-on: this film remains as exciting, informative, distressing, and relevant now as it was 40 years ago, and it’s impossible to forget many of the faces, images, and sequences on display. Kopple may not have intended to make a feminist film, but the grit and fury of these wives and mothers makes it clear that coal-mining is very much a family affair despite its deeply gendered history (no female coal-miners are shown). Thankfully, Criterion Films has not only preserved and digitized this movie but added informative supplements to the DVD, including a “making of” documentary, outtakes, and commentary by Kopple and editor Nancy Baker. John Sayles’ Matewan (1987) was directly influenced by this film, and he appears briefly on the disc as well. Click here to read an update on the ongoing labor realities of Harlan County citizens, who now face closing mines.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive ethnographic footage of mining families’ lived realities and struggles
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  • Many powerful and/or frightening moments caught on film
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Must See?
Yes, as a still-riveting American documentary classic.

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One Response to “Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)”

  1. First viewing. Must-see.

    A brave, shocking, at times horrifying/soul-shattering, heartbreaking film that speaks loud and clear for itself – so I can’t say that anything I can add about it would much matter. It just needs to be seen – and (hopefully) anyone who sees it is better for the experience.

    The feminist component is perhaps something of a lucky happenstance – but, especially for the area this was filmed in, it was historic (as is brought out in the ‘making of’ DVD extra, which does indeed augment the film in some significant ways).

    To say the least, it’s an explosive document about exploitation, greed and worker/family solidarity in the fierce face of capitalism. Of course, this is not a new story – it’s the age-old tale of the rich against the poor & the privileged against the workers.

    But it’s one of the best documentaries I have ever seen – and guerrilla filmmaking at its finest. Very – very deserving of its Oscar.

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