Harlan County USA
May 10, 2006
Harlan County USA (1976) is a fascinating documentary about a bitter coal miners’ strike in a small Kentucky town. In 1973, the miners working in Brookside Mine voted to join the United Mine Workers Union. The Duke Power Company and its subsidiary Eastover Mining Company refused to sign their contract. This kick started an ugly strike which director Barbara Kopple and her crew captured in detail. She had incredible access and was right on the picket lines documenting several conflicts between the miners and the strikebreakers.
She establishes in the opening credits how these miners work in extremely dangerous conditions for meager pay in a wordless montage that is quite effective. They live in slums with no running water or indoor plumbing facilities while the rich company profits from their hard labour. Many miners either die in mishaps in the mine or later from black lung. The latter is perhaps their worst enemy. Black lung is caused by ingesting coal dust over prolonged periods of time. Incredulously, the company claims that black lung is not caused by this, outright contradicting what doctors have amply proven. It’s akin to big tobacco companies saying that cigarettes aren’t addictive.
We learn of the long history of the miners’ animosity towards the company dating back to the 1930s with a bloody violent strike. There are fears that this new one will be just as bad. We see the miners getting organized, handing out bumper stickers to passing motorists and organizing picket lines. They are fighting for basic rights, like safe working conditions and compensation if they are injured on the job.
Kopple interviews miners and their family members who are clearly tired of being exploited by the company. During the first month the police use force to keep angry miners at bay allowing strikebreakers in to do their jobs. The tension is palpable. Regulations limit the number of miners who can be on the picket lines so their wives get organized, galvanized by the charismatic Lois Scott and we see them right there on the front lines with signs and clubs.
The strike drags on for nine months and the miners take their fight to New York City, picketing on Wall Street and encouraging people not to buy Duke Power Company stock. Ten months in and the strikebreakers arm themselves with guns in response to the strikers armed with bats. Things escalate when the head strikebreaker, Basil Collins, pulls a gun on the picket line and, at one point, aims right at the camera!
Harlan County USA exposes the hypocrisy of the entire system. The unions are often in league with the companies as are organized religion, leaving the average worker with little or no support. The documentary flashes back to show how one union leader was murdered by another! Kopple’s sympathies lie with the miners and rightly so. They are being unfairly screwed over by the company. It’s hard not to be moved by the miners’ plight and get angry at the greedy company. The people are willing to go all the way for what they believe in with absolute conviction and there is something incredibly inspiring about that. Harlan County USA deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Documentary and has gone on to inspire documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore and socially conscious directors like John Sayles.
There is an audio commentary by director Barbara Kopple and director of editing Nancy Baker. Kopple praises the authenticity of the music because a lot of came from the people who lived in the town and from Hazel Dickens who grew up in a coal mining town. The director talks about how she got involved and how, at first, the townsfolk didn’t trust them because they didn’t know who they were. It wasn’t until they got into a car accident and lugged their equipment to the picket lines that they were embraced by the townsfolk. Baker speaks of how the chance to help promote change and document these peoples’ struggle is what inspired her to work on this documentary. Clearly, this movie was a labour of love for the two women who still feel passionately about it after all these years.
“The Making of Harlan County USA” is a retrospective documentary made for this DVD. It was a documentary that changed Kopple’s life. Key crew members recall some of their experiences working on it, including their impressions of the townsfolk. Strike activist Bessie Parker and miner Jerry Johnson talk about what they thought of the filmmakers at the time. This is an excellent look at this landmark documentary.
Six “Outtakes” are presented from hundreds of hours of footage shot for the documentary. We see the town sheriff tell Lois that he’s on the miners’ side. Bessie Parker talks about her confrontation with a scab and fallout from it.
“Hazel Dickens Interview.” She grew up in a coal mining community and went on to be a successful bluegrass singer. Kopple asked her to contribute to the documentary’s soundtrack. Dickens talks about how she got her start and her work on the film. She clearly identified with the subject matter and how Kopple depicted it.
“John Sayles on the Film.” His film Matewan (1987) was a dramatization of West Virginia coal miners trying to unionize in the 1920s. He was inspired by Kopple’s documentary and had crew members on his film watch it. He points out that the doc showed a world that many people were unaware of at the time. He also praises the use of music and the effectiveness of the editing to tell the story.
Finally, there is “Harlan County USA at Sundance.” In 2005 the Sundance Film Festival honoured the documentary on its 30th anniversary. This is footage of a Q&A panel discussion moderated by film critic Roger Ebert and featuring key crew members from the doc. One highlight is Kopple recounting the fear she and crew felt the day the sheriff gave an arrest warrant to the head strikebreaker Basil Collins. She found out later that Collins planned to kill her. This extra features some excellent anecdotes about what it was like being there during the strike.