The documentary went just a little too far.
Before I go into the description, I need to explain two things in the spirit of full disclosure. First, I’m a liberal of the old stripe except for the second thing: I am anti-union. The reason for being anti-union is that I believe the unions in the 1920s and 1930s did great things for both the working man and woman and the country; however, after that the focus became too much on the union and not on the way the union really needs to protect the worker. I currently believe that unions now do a bit more harm than good—this is only based on the information I can get at any time during a strike. Please don’t get me wrong, just because I am anti-union does not mean that I am anti-worker or that I believe their right to strike or protest should be limited.
Harlan County, U.S.A. is the very intimate story of a 1973 strike by miners in Harlan County Kentucky. The strike lasted more than a year and director Barbara Kopple does a fantastic job of letting the strikers and their families tell their own tales. It is pretty much what you would expect of an area whose only industry is coal. The public works are terrible; the city and county officials side with the coal company; black lung is prevalent; life is just hard. The documentary covers the, at first, peaceful protest (including a trip for the miners to Wall Street in lower Manhattan who warn investors not to buy stock in Duke Energy (the parent company of the coal company)), then the escalating violence as the months drag on. What finally gets the ball rolling towards the coal company accepting the union contract is the outright murder of a striking miner. They get the contract they spent a year picketing for. Then the documentary adds about ten minutes of confusion about national union politics that seems to be very out of place and is really the only negative thing about it.
What will strike (pun intended) anyone watching this documentary is something I didn’t expect at all. The women run the show—I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but I have to admit that I was. These women of moderate, at best, education, explain their situation and that of their families with heavy accents but with surprising diction. I know that sounds like a back handed compliment, but put it in its context. Rural coal town in the middle of the mountains poverty is so prevalent people would likely not consider themselves poor so much as “like everybody else.” What this does is show the women, specifically, as having a dignity that the situation would belie. They stand out in a way the men never do. The contract is for the men, but they do less to fight for it then their wives and mothers.
A film like this will be heavily skewed towards the strikers; however, Ms. Kopple does allow a couple of townsmen voice their opinion that a strike is a bad thing and that unions are Communist (this happens very early on before the battle lines are truly drawn; after that . . . it is all union all the time).
The end is confusing though. Harlan County now is part of the large United Mine Workers of America and has to abide by the union rules. This seems to come as a surprise to the men in Harlan. They got their wish, but the wish came with some unexpected costs. This is all well and good, but the documentary throws it at the end—what you will be left with most—in a way that almost seem like a slight to the people who were being lauded for 95 minutes prior. This is not only confusing but hits me as a little mean-spirited.
Minus the ending, Harlan County, U.S.A. shows in color and with what appears to be full honesty, why unions had been necessary before and why, in places so far removed from broader societies, they can continue to be helpful. The story is also told with humor, I had more than a few belly laughs at the way they used humor to cope with the situation. The film is festooned with union dirges and I was a little afraid the whole documentary would take that tone, but enough of it is funny that it makes it that much easier to watch and far less alien that it might otherwise be.
Pro or anti-union, I recommend this to anyone who likes documentaries.
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