FILM REVIEW: Harlan County, USA

FILM REVIEW: HARLAN COUNTY, USA
FILMMAKER: BARBARA KOPPLE
REVIEWER: KATY JONES

This is just a fantastic effing film! I’m kind of a angry at myself for going this long without seeing this film. It’s everything I always wanted filmmaking to be.

In June of 1972, the mine workers of the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky go on strike for better working conditions and wages. They wanted a United Mine Workers contract with parent company Duke Power and refused to go back to work until they got it. Barbara Kopple takes her film crew to Harlan County to get a bit of footage, but finds the mine workers and the strike so compelling she decided to stay in Harlan County and make an entire film about the strike.

What resulted is a passionate, heroic and immersive view into the inner workings of the strike and the lives of the workers. This desperate group of people – living in company shacks with no water or electricity – who fight for a better life. Ms. Kopple and her film crew pursue every angle of the story – they go inside the mines, the home life of the workers, the meetings of the union, the gatherings of the strike breakers with such gentle tenacity that the camera becomes a participant in the strike itself.

Its like going through culture shock. The initial moments of this film – the noise and clatter of the mine, the voices of the mine workers, the views of the town – are foreign and confusing. But just like gaining understanding in another country – as you watch the film, as you become more immersed and understanding, and these lives become more vibrant and compelling. What’s at stake – their health, their livelihood, their children – becomes richer and more desperate. As the strike continues to go on and the danger faced by those characters you come to care about – the frustrated mine workers and the spitfires of the ladies club – escalates at the hands of the strikebreakers and police you participate in the fear and tenacity of those holding on to hope at the end of the fight.

This is a film about Americans who fight hard for a better life. This is a film where lives are at stake. This is a film about worker’s rights. This is also a women’s lib film. The active strike participation of wives and mothers and sisters in this Appalachian small town doubled the power of the strike against the company. And the women become the most consistent voices in the strike and its organization.

This is also a film about the power of the camera. The constant presence of the camera recorded an exhaustive amount of violence as the strikebreakers and their organizer, Basil Collins, tried to beat and threaten submission into the miners. Basil Collins is recorded in slow motion firing a gun at the camera while members of the strikebreakers beat Ms. Kopple and her crew. However, it is likely that the presence of the camera kept the level of murder down during the strike. Earlier strikes had resulted in a great deal of bloodshed on both sides. This strike had only one death. One death resulted in enough outrage to end the strike.

After winning the strike, the lives of the coal miners in Harlan don’t suddenly become paradise, but they win concessions bit by bit. There’s an uphill battle in the future, and a compelling feeling that some battles simply have to be won.

5 out of 5 cheers

Katy

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4 thoughts on “FILM REVIEW: Harlan County, USA

  1. I’m guessing you gave this bad boy 5 out of 5 Cheers?

    I’m going to have to down grade it to just a 4 out of 5.

    I wasn’t blown away by the film. I appreciate the opening and closing scene which consisted of the coal miners singing and mine natural sounds. I also need to give props to the constant camera work and dedication of the filmmaker. But, I did fall asleep once and find myself with a wondering mind. I completely attribute those actions to the change in documentaries form the 1970’s to the 2000’s.

    —- becks

  2. Thanks for bringing a classic back to mind! Kopple’s Direct Cinema style is truly a dying art form these days.

    As film consumers demand faster paced films with quick cutting and a driving musical score, it’s great to reflect for a moment on the power of observational filmmaking, with its persistent and patient gaze, to reveal something deeper about an individual or a community.

    Yes, it runs the risk of seeming a bit slow when compared to documentary films that screen in theaters today. But films made in this style have an air of authority about them that more modern films often diminish with every quick cut that bashes two disparate images together. Today’s filmmaker tells her story more with her edit rather than with life unfolding as lived in front of the camera. Of course, we always make choices about how to re-present the subjects of our film, but these long takes give me a relationship with the subjects that is otherwise impossible to build.

    The film gets 5 out of 5 cheers from me too. Check out her other classic “American Dream” about a strike at the Hormel meat packing plant in Minnesota in 1984.

  3. Thanks, Zach! I’m glad you enjoyed the film. I’ve got “American Dream” on the ol’ Netflix cue. My personal favorite of hers is “Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson” which I think was the first film that made me want to be a documentary filmmaker. I haven’t seen it in a long time, but watching “Harlan County” made me want to give it re-viewing.

    Cheers!

  4. I finally saw this one (I am slow to return my netflix – it’s a problem). Of course I loved it, above and beyond my sympathies for union organizing. I thought it was fairly balanced in its examination of UMWA, not only examining the corruption of leadership that lead to the Yablonski murders but also illustrating the distance between the union leadership and the rank and file miners over strike negotiations and tactics. It was telling that when the national office came to Harlan County, it was accompanied by parades and media coverage and a festival atmosphere, but once it was over the striking miners were back on their own on the picket line, facing down threats of violence and still without a resolution to the strike.

    I found it interesting that the strike encouraged participation that went beyond racial, gender, and generational barriers. The mine, and possibly the strike itself, created a community that seemed progressive for small-town Kentucky in the early/mid-1970’s. When outsiders disparaged the participation of women in the strike or made comments about the presence of African-American strikers, the mine community rallied around their fellow strikers. The community also brought the young and old together – long-haired boys and elderly women stood side by side on the picket lines.

    Kopple’s story isn’t just about the miners of the Harlan County but about painting a wider picture of issues in the mining industry. She gets government officials (the Secretary of Labor? Something?) on camera acknowledging that American mine safety and standards lag behind other industrialized nations, but notes that mines are given extensions in coming up to code. A mine that was given repeated extensions was kept open despite all of the violations and finally closed only after an explosion killed a number of miners. This was hardly the most shocking point in the film, but it is a solid indictment of American government relations with big industry.

    Perhaps most of all, I was struck by the depth of the commitment to the strike and to the union more broadly. Despite being out of work for 14 months (!), it seemed that most of the strikers never wavered. When Lawrence Jones is killed, his mother is proud he died a union man. The memories of the miners and their families go back to the wide-scale, violent strikes of the 1930’s, and the memories served as a rallying point for the current miners and their families.

    One angle I felt could have been addressed would have come from interviews with the state police, the sheriff, and other non-strikers in the area. The miners knew the people who came to maintain order, addressed them by name (not talking about Collins and the strike breakers, but the actual police), and they interacted in the same small town on a regular basis. The sheriff in particular seemed to be put in the middle between the strikers and Collins. It would have been interesting to hear how they felt about the strike and how they felt about the part they had to play.

    As a final note, the music is freakin’ awesome. Five out of five cheers from me.

    Jenny

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