Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

I think the way you earn the trust of the people in a situation like that is you do the porch time.

–John Sayles, Interview, Harlan County U.S.A.: Criterion Collection

We saw it as as much a political act as a film act, and I was just grateful that the thing I could do for a living was going to be useful in some way.

–Nancy Baker, commentary

Each time you tackle a film, there are no rules. And each film takes you around different corners.

–Barbara Kopple, commentary

“I think there was no stopping the women in Harlan County,” says Barbara Kopple. She and editor Nancy Baker are commenting on Harlan County U.S.A. for the wonderful Criterion Collection Edition, at this moment, looking at footage of a Women’s Club meeting. And they’re impressed again — after 30 years — at the monumental courage and drive displayed by “the women,” miner’s wives and mothers, fed up with their men’s perpetually dire situations. Kopple could not have made a more succinct or accurate assessment: the women meant business.

As associate director Anne Lewis notes during “The Making of Harlan County U.S.A.,” the Women’s Club provided space and time for planning and mustering nerve. When the outspoken Lois Scott pulls a gun from her blouse, vowing to defend herself against the gun-toting strikebreakers, Lewis compares the moment to others in the Women’s Liberation Movement. “Which is more liberating, burning your bra or pulling a pistol out of your bra?”

The women have help, of course. Nominally a documentary about the 1973 strike by Kentucky mineworkers, the 1976 Oscar-winning Harlan County U.S.A. observes the evolution of a movement, made urgent by circumstances (miners’ working conditions were abominable) and expanded by an earnest and unstoppable sense of collective will and interest. As it observes so much more than the “strike events,” as Kopple calls them, the film also becomes integral to those events and the families’ experiences. With multiple focuses on the community’s resilience and faith, humility and intelligence, the movie illustrates the toughness of a long-lived, deeply meaningful culture, manifest in music and dialogue and dress, in the ways some 180 families supported one another and, eventually, invited Kopple and her small crew into their number. Working together, the film crew and the community documented a shift in thinking and living.

The strike began when workers joined the United Mine Workers (UMW), and their employers, the Eastover Mining Co. and its parent company Duke Power, refused to sign the standard union contract. It was an attempt, says Kopple for the DVD, “to organize the unorganized. Harlan County was sort of the first test case for Miners for Democracy.” When she arrived in town, the trouble was already under way, with the company bringing in scab workers and the strikers walking daily picket lines as their families were “just scraping by.” “It’s no fun being on strike when you don’t have anything,” says the director.

As Kopple became determined to accompany her new friends on the picket lines, her film makes no bones about what side it’s on. Filling in history of the horrific conditions afflicting coalminers — some safety issues remain unresolved to this day, as indicated by the West Virginia accidents — the documentary never loses focus on the people in front of the camera, whose lives were at risk in 1974. The Criterion DVD includes other allusions to the film’s ongoing resonance, including a brief interview with John Sayles (who notes the film’s effective use of music), the worthy making-of documentary, and footage of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival’s panel celebrating the film’s 30th anniversary, with moderator Roger Ebert and Kopple, Baker, DP Hart Perry, singer Hazel Dickens, and several striking Utah miners.

The point made repeatedly, in the documentary and in these extras, concerns “solidarity,” in both the United Mine Workers’ and socialist senses, as well as the union of community interest and art in the filmmaking project. For even as the film charts the miners’ creation of a solid front, it supports their efforts on the ground and in its spirit. The workers take to heart the words of John L. Lewis (President UMW, 1920-1960): “With organization you have the aid of your fellow man. Without organization, you’re a lone individual, without influence and without recognition of any kind.” This even as the company brought in state troopers to ensure the scabs can cross the picket line and “gun thugs,” local bullies who take after the strikes with firearms.

The filmmakers joined in, Kopple remembers, despite initial resistance from her subjects, who thought her a “hippie New York filmmaker,” an interloper without a stake in their complicated lives. But, associate director Anne Lewis recalls during the making-of short, when they ended up carrying their equipment four a couple of miles to the picket line following an auto mishap, the miners were impressed. “You proved your loyalty by not letting a mere car accident slow you down,” Baker says.

Kopple was transformed by the experience. She believed in the film, in using it to bring “forward a sense of culture that I guess, living in New York City, you don’t get, you don’t get that sense of ritual, you don’t get that sense of community.” In Kentucky, she found this community, and she made their case to a broader audience than they might ever have imagined reaching. And her film influenced thinking about documentary. No longer could makers pretend to be “objective.” Instead, they had to own up to their participation in the process, to confess their biases, and make sense of them as part of the film process.

“It’s probably the most important film that I ever worked on,” says Kopple, “It made me, as a person, incredibly strong.” This had to do with the threats she faced. “Everybody had guns,” she says on the commentary. “The first morning we were there, a guy had a shootout with another guy. And the next day we saw him riding around with a sign hanging out of car: “38s ain’t shit.” So I knew I was in for a rough time.” Indeed, as the film shows, several shootings took place along the picket line, and one of the miners was eventually killed. His funeral, shown in the film, is extraordinarily moving, and also galvanizing. The families don’t even think about backing down.

Even as it celebrates their strength, the movie never loses sight of the devastating hardships the miners face when they’re working. “I never heard anyone in my family say they loved coal mining,” says Bessie Parker in “The Making of Harlan County U.S.A.,”

They just did it, that’s what there was to do. There was nothing really to like about working in harsh conditions, having people dying around you, and not making enough money. There’s nothing to like about that. You just do it.

Observing the film’s opening scene, shot in the dark, close space of a mine tunnel, Kopple says she wanted to convey just some of the discomfort and danger, “to watch and feel that these guys really spend their whole day, eight, 10 hours a day, eating down there, socializing down there, and always crawling, always kneeling.” Kopple takes the camera crew into the hospital, to observe men as their doctor warns them yet again of the risks of black lung. Wizened and resigned, yet still upbeat, the 60-something lifelong laborers laugh easily with one another. A black man sits beside two white men on a gurney, their chests visible from beneath the gowns they’ve donned for their exams. “You couldn’t see your buddy on the other side of the car for the dust,” he says matter-of-factly. “We done make every color when we went in. You all look the same when you came out. The whites looked like the black, so it wasn’t any difference.” Cut to the doctor, who laments that symptomatic miners “don’t dare quit” unless they can be sure of getting disability benefits. “It’s a kind of a negative system, because what we do is force them to keep working until they become that disabled.”

The union, in other words, was crucial to the miners’ survival. When at last the contract is signed — indeed, a national contract is signed, for the first time — the miners are paid something resembling a living wage. And yet, even as the film ends, on still more shots of the mines, back to work in extreme circumstances, Baker and Kopple marvel at their ability to go on. “For me,” says Kopple, “It was just incredibly important to think that you can’t rest after something happens. That you have to go on to the next struggle and the next fight. It’s what it’s all about, it’s a total continuum.” And you’re left to consider this notion — the continuum — while also pondering the state of organized labor in the U.S. today.

RATING 9 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.