- Director: Barbara Kopple
- Starring: Norman Yarbrough, Houston Elmore, Phil Sparks, John Corcoran, John O’Leary, Donald Rasmussen, Dr. Hawley Wells, Jr., Tom Williams, Harry Patrick, William E. Simon, and Hazel Dickens
- Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#51), Shown at New York International Film Festival, 1 Oscar (Best Documentary)
- Where to Watch: Stream with Subscription on HBO Max or The Criterional Channel
1976 was celebrated at the American Bicentennial, a year of patriotic commemoration of national progress. It was an important sign, then, that one of the most talked about movies of that year was a documentary with “USA” uncoincidentally in the title, which exposed a still ongoing piece of America that some people might not have been familiar with. That piece, for what it’s worth, is still ongoing, and at a time when unionization attempts at an Amazon center in Alabama remain consistently in the national news, Harlan County, USA is just as relevant as ever.
Barbara Kopple and her crew originally meant to make a much quicker film about elections for the United Mine Workers of America Presidency, but then heard about coal miners in rural Harlan County, Kentucky, who had gone on strike in order to force their employer to accept the fact that they had unionized. The miners and their families are shown living in what looks like a weird hybrid of log cabin times and the modern day, without running water in their ramshackle, company-provided housing. The film does not dwell at great length on the hardships experienced by miners and their families, but they are very clear. We see (briefly, at the beginning), men at work in cramped darkness down in the mines, and it looks like a nightmare. We visit the black lung clinic, where they discuss how the company refuses to pay out benefits for the disease unless you actually die first. One old miner describes being told by a boss to be careful where in the mine he took a mule, because they cost a lot to replace if something happened to them. “What about me?” the man asked, and the supervisor replied that the men were a lot easier to replace than the mules.
As the strike goes on, we see the mine company keeping up a business-like front publicly, while privately paying thugs to threaten the strikers with guns and other weapons. The townspeople try to stop cars carrying “scabs” to work in the mine, but are pushed back by police. Eventually, a younger miner named Larry Jones is killed in the middle of the night, apparently by company thugs, leaving a “sixteen-year-old wife and a six-month old baby.” After this tragedy, the two sides are pushed together to a quick agreement. Three months later, a full national contract of the UMWA is passed, leaving most of the local miners unhappy and the situation going forward ambiguous. A grand jury declines to indict the man that “everyone knows” killed Larry Jones, and life continues.
Kopple and her crew and collaborators spent four years making the film, on-and-off, as the strike dragged on. They later described shooting as long as they could in Kentucky until the money ran out, then traveling back to New York to work odd jobs and beg for money, until they could finance more of the film. Kopple does not appear on screen or provide any narration. It is all either candid footage or one side of interviews, along with a couple of on-screen explanatory titles. This is pure cinema vérité. At first, the strikers were highly suspicious of the cameras and crew, but were eventually won over when they saw them putting themselves just as much on the line physically as the strikers were. Rumors swirled that the company bosses had put out a contract on Kopple’s life, but she survived. Suffice to say this is not an unbiased account of these events, or an attempt to examine all sides of the issue of unionization and workers’ rights. This is a story about people who seem to be the epitome of powerlessness, a “hick town” that decides, en masse, to stand up to the people that run things. The details of what’s in the contract or whether the company’s making money or a bunch of other things are mentioned, but mostly glossed over. This is a story about a certain type of disrespected people people desperately trying to stick together when the odds seem stacked against them.
You should probably know going in that 90% of the run-time of Harlan County, USA is devoted to interviews, discussions, and speeches between people from very small-town Kentucky, with accents so thick that even the HBO Max subtitles often gave up and just said “inaudible.” Several people manage to give the last name of the local mine boss, Michael Horn, about five syllables. The soundtrack is mostly composed of a series of extremely specific local folk songs that reference things like getting left off the company medical plan. At one meeting of miners’ wives, one lady reaches down the front of her shirt and pulls a pistol out of her bra, saying she’s ready to defend herself against the company thugs. “You can’t just carry that around like that,” one woman says, but she replies, “it’s fine, it’s got a safety don’t it?” Some might find these people charming, others grating, but I do think you should know going in that you’re in for them for an hour and forty minutes, so if you get ten minutes and go “I have no idea what they’re saying,” it’s not going to get any better.
Harlan County, USA was praised universally at its release. One memorable scene involves guns being fired at the strikers in the pre-dawn darkness, and the cameraman and likely Kopple herself being knocked down and beaten. It is the sort of immediacy normally limited to news reports from war-torn foreign countries. In fact, miners later stated in interviews that they thought the presence of an outsider camera crew actually did a lot to prevent much worse violence from breaking out. Kopple was awarded the Best Documentary Oscar for the film. Her next film, American Dream, covered somewhat similar territory, following a years-long strike a meatpacking plant in Minnesota. She received a second Best Documentary Oscar for that film in 1991. Despite these successes in terms of acclaim and awards, Kopple has always had to scrap for funding, and her films remain relatively few and far between. She would later receive a third Oscar nomination for Shut Up and Sing, a documentary about the Dixie Chicks country music band before and after a controversy the band became caught up regarding the Iraq War.
I think we’d probably be in a better place overall, as a country, if everybody had to watch Harlan County, USA. But while it is a great film about a strike, it is not about any of the reasons for that strike, or why the mining company is the way it is, or why these people choose to stay in this godforesaken place instead of move away, or why the national union gives them support on some issues and not others. This is a movie 100% told from the miners’ point of view. If it hadn’t been, it’s very clear the miners wouldn’t have let the camera crew anywhere near them. So it is less an “issue movie,” about how things need to change in some specific way, than you might expect. Honestly, I find movies like that (An Inconvenient Truth springs to mind) not particularly great subjects for feature documentaries. I’m left wondering why it wasn’t a long-read in The Atlantic. Rather, it is a portrait of specific people in a specific set of circumstances, people and circumstances that are still here in our country today but many of us, including myself, have very little first-hand experience with. And in that way, it is a perfect use of the form, and completely invaluable.