The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

‘Harlan County, USA’: A powerful and landmark documentary about miners’ woes


By Arun Kumar

“It was a fight before and it’s still a fight. Fight before we had the union and still fightin’. The coal miner will always be fightin’……”

Coal, although is the least expensive of energy source, intermittently claims myriad lives of workers. Plunging down into the dark underground chamber filled with explosive methane could cause disasters one way or other. The mining workers’ battle for upward mobility and strict safety standards is something that’s going on for centuries. The workers have always been the David pitted against the combined power of government, company management, and law. And, in this reality David rarely wins against Goliath. But the firm attitude of Just because you lose a battle doesn’t mean you lose the war’ keeps people fighting for social justice. Barbara Kopple’s feature debut, Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), winner of the Best Documentary Oscar, chronicles one such uphill task shouldered by coal mining families of Brookside, Harlan County, situated amidst the rural hills of eastern Kentucky.

Harlan County, U.S.A. is one of the seminal documentaries for its time, its power derived from the way Kopple intimately involved herself in documenting the plight of the miners, avoiding unnecessary artistic flourishes and depicting the poverty as it is. Film critic Mr. Peter Biskind puts it like this: “There are no artfully composed shots in HARLAN COUNTY, USA, none of the silhouettes-against-the-horizon shots. The film’s poetry is not one of image but of action, clarity, strength; its eloquence is that of the people within it.” The documentary may be accused of only scratching the political and historical surface, but under Kopple’s keen gaze the film doesn’t remain only as a visual document of 1973 miners’ strike, but a quiet moving portrait of workers, slapping on a helmet and heading into the dark caverns, as their families are even denied of basic utilities.

Barbara Kopple, a graduate of psychology, worked with famous documentarians Maysles Brothers (Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, etc). She also worked in Peter Davies’ Oscar-winning Vietnam War documentary, Hearts and Minds (1974). Kopple was initially drawn to the topic of miners’ struggle when there was a conflict between American labor leader Jock Yablonski and Tony Boyle, the corrupt president of the United Mine Workers (U.M.W.). Yablonski, his wife, and daughter were later murdered in cold-blood and Boyle was convicted of ordering the hit on the family. The tale of power struggle, murder, and corruption for controlling the union intrigued Kopple to make this her subject of first feature. However, her subject changed when she relocated to eastern Kentucky and came across the coal miners’ strike. The miners were striking against Eastover Mining, a subsidiary company of energy giant Duke Power, over a U.M.W. contract. Wage cuts, varied pay-scale, unreliable or non-existent medical and retirement benefits, relaxation of safety standards were all the predominant problems that propelled miners to commence the strike. Barbara Kopple and her film crew spent more than three years in the region and stayed 13 months in the coalfields (the strike lasted for that much time), documenting the workers’ extreme efforts to organize without a pinch of exploitation [Nancy Baker’s editing – hundreds of hours of footage – was absolutely flawless].

Director Kopple clearly takes the side of workers and mostly fascinated by the determination of miners’ wives who have politicized and radicalized themselves to confront the sinister forces attempting to break the strike. She presents the other side (mine operators) to make us understand the complexities and hidden meanings involved in undermining the workers’ struggle. But although Kopple takes a side, she doesn’t turn it into blatant propaganda, since her work is grounded in basic human values; not stuck with political or cultural ideologies. Unlike many modern documentaries, this doesn’t feign any attempt to provide an anthropological study. Even the historical background of the strike and the bloody conflicts within workers union is examined as an afterthought. The imagery juggles between picket-lines, charged-up workers meeting, frank confrontations (between workers, their wives and the gun-thugs & lawmen), and interviews, oft shot in close-ups. Kopple’s camera never aeshteticizes or injects visual beauty just for the sake of viewing pleasure. From showcasing the ramshackle houses to the sunken faces afflicted by black-lung disease, the film-maker immerses us into the workers’ existence rather than placing us in a distanced perspective to offer sighs of pity. There’s also none of the constructed image made to paint a picture of togetherness among unionized workers. We see gradual disintegration of the strike organizers and in one of the meetings of wives’ club a discussion on strike changes to accusation against a woman stealing husbands. There’s spontaneity and urgency in the way Kopple captures these moments that we feel they are very much like us – flawed and vulnerable.

There are quite a few memorable moments and people in the documentary. A retired miner laments about the working conditions in the mine in the 1930s when the company viewed the value of human life less than that of a mule: “We can always afford to hire another man, but we’ve got to buy that mule,” the miner was told. The old mother crying at the funeral of her murdered son (a worker killed at a conflict with hired thugs) is one of the film’s very moving moment [even more unforgettable & chilling is the shot of a little piece of brain of the murdered worker on the site of killing]. Then there’s a scene towards the end, when after the end of strikes, a man well past his retirement age, with still not much of benefits, forlornly goes down into the mine. To hell with objectivity is what the shot makes us say, since there’s such a vast gulf between coal profits and coal wages from year to year. Two people at the opposite ends of this strike bring upon an everlasting impact on the viewers: one is Lois Scott, a resilient guiding force for the strikers and their wives. She imparts such vitality and strength in each gatherings; the other is Basil Collins, the villain employed to break up picket lines and demoralize the workers. Although Collins doesn’t give any interviews, there’s one tense moment when he looks straight at Kopple and camera and asks for some ID with an impish smile. The other indelible factor in the film is heart-rending soundtrack (mostly bluegrass music by singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens) which paints a perfect image of the unpleasant coal-mining culture and the innumerable hardships shadowing the profession.

Harlan County, USA isn’t afflicted with the liberal guilt that seems to be problem with many sentimental, issue-driven documentaries of contemporary era. Kopple’s Harlan County and her other masterpiece American Dream (1990) were made with deep understanding of workers’ life. It comes only from gaining their trust and immersing oneself into the community; not with plain intent of gaining a story. Many of the soulful moments in the documentary originates because the subjects forget the crew’s presence which definitely isn’t possible without gaining trust. Along with American Dream (focuses on workers’ strike at Hormel meatpacking plant in Minnesota), this documentary stands as a potent indictment of the damage that could be caused by the vision of ruthless capitalism. Unburdened of any preordained political agenda, Harlan County, U.S.A. (103 minutes) is an incisive presentation of the realities of coal miners whose battles with the establishment relentlessly goes on.

Arun Kumar is a Software professional with an unbridled passion for the world of cinema and books. He believes in an enriching film culture – from watching great cinema to engaging with its connoisseurs. Currently, he blogs at Passion for Movies and Passion for Books.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Travel: Cities, Places, People’, edited by Nishi Pulugurtha, academic, Kolkata, India.

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