FILM REVIEW: Harlan County, USA


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


Next week’s review: Harlan County, USA

Next week, Becky & I will review Harlan County, USA.

This 1976 film by Barbara Kopple is one that a lot of folks have written in to say they’d like to watch.  So get your Netflix inboxes ready!  Review will be up on Monday.

“Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award–winning Harlan County USA unflinchingly documents a grueling coal miners’ strike in a small Kentucky town. With unprecedented access, Kopple and her crew captured the miners’ sometimes violent struggles with strikebreakers, local police, and company thugs. Featuring a haunting soundtrack—with legendary country and bluegrass artists Hazel Dickens, Merle Travis, Sarah Gunning, and Florence Reece—the film is a heartbreaking record of the thirteen-month struggle between a community fighting to survive and a corporation dedicated to the bottom line.”

From Criterion Films