Harlan County, U.S.A. is one of the great documentaries. It shows us the miners' strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mine Company, part of the giant Duke Power corporate empire. It is an emotionally wrenching look at what happens to some poorly educated, unsophisticated, hard-working people when they decide to come together in a struggle for the kinds of rights and protections most Americans take for granted.
In 1973 the miners at Brookside in Harlan County, Kentucky, decided to organize. They voted to join the United Mine Workers. Duke Power immediately said that they would recognize no contract with the UMW; they wouldn't even negotiate. The miners could either work under the old contract or lose their jobs. The miners struck. The miners worked in filthy, unsafe conditions deep underground, with minimal medical coverage, low wages and bare pensions. Black lung disease was commonplace but the company fought long and hard to make the case that there was no correlation between coal mining and any specific individual's medical situation. Mine safety was an incidental issue, compounded by the failure of the U. S. government to enforce even the lax regulations which were on the books. (Any of this sound familiar recently?) The miners and their families lived in company-owned hovels with no running water and only outdoor privies.
Remember, this is 1973, not 1933. The company used the power of the state to their advantage. State troopers were assigned to keep the roads open so that strike breakers could reach the mines. The sheriff was largely invisible; when he was around he showed deference to the mine owners. The company brought in strike breakers and gun thugs to intimidate the miners. One miner's house was peppered with gunshot while he, his wife and their two children slept. Violence escalated. One night an unarmed young striker was assassinated with a shotgun blast to his face. He left a 16-year-old wife and a five-month-old baby.
During the long months of the strike (it lasted over a year), it was hard for the miners to stick together. Conditions were tough and getting tougher. They had no income other than a small strike allowance from the UMW. Some argued for getting their guns and giving back to the gun thugs the thugs' own medicine. Others argued that they had to keep their focus on what mattered...a contract.
When things looked most discouraging, the miners' wives stepped forward. They were not about to let their men be intimidated or beaten. They organized themselves. They manned picket lines. They faced down serious threats from the armed gun thugs. They kept reminding their men that if they stuck together they would eventually beat Duke Power. Eventually, and probably due to the increasing media coverage of Duke Power's behavior and the revulsion over the young miner's murder, the UMW negotiated a contract with Duke under heavy Federal mediation pressure. But it wasn't a total victory. As one miner said, If you get something you have to keep pushing for more, otherwise they'll take it all back.
Barbara Kopple and her photographer came to document the strike. She did it the old-fashioned way. For months she lived with the miners, covering the strike lines, the meetings, the arguments, and showing the working conditions. She had film evidence of the threats and bullying of the gun thugs, of how they carried more and more weapons...not just pistols but automatic rifles. One early morning just at dawn on a strike line blocking a road, she and her photographer were suddenly assaulted by a couple of the gun thugs. We see it happen.
Kopple also puts the strike in context. She uses historical footage of Harlan County's bloody mining strikes in the Thirties. She shows the murderous struggle for control of the UMW that resulted in the head of the union, Tony Boyle, ordering the killing of his rival, Jock Yablonski. She takes a clip of the Duke Power chairman smiling and saying that he didn't think women should be involved with the activities he's heard about, certainly not his own wife, and then showing what the miners' wives' lives are like and how strong their passion is for fairness. She shows Duke Power spokesman Norman Yarborough talking about the company's commitment to "upgrade" housing as soon as it's practical, and then shows the hovels the miners have been living in for years. She shows us Frances Reece, now an old woman, whose song "Which Side Are You On" became a rallying cry during the mine strikes of the Thirties, stand up before the strikers and their wives and sing the song again, in a quavering and passionate tribute to these men and women.
Harlan County, U.S.A. won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Documentary. In 1990 it was added to the National Film Registry. It is a powerful film that touches on many serious issues. The Criterion DVD is in excellent shape. Among the extras are the film, The Making of Harlan County USA, which features Barbara Kopple, members of her crew and some of the strike participants; a video interview with director John Sayles; and a panel discussion that includes Kopple and Roger Ebert.
Pros: Presentation, the people being filmed, the sense of humor they have Cons: The last 10 minutes The Bottom Line: I doubt any other documentary could be as plain as this for why unions may still be necessary (and this is from an anti-union liberal). Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot. The documentary went just a little too far. … more
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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If Barbara Kopple had made no other film than this documentary account of the 1974 strike of Kentucky mine workers, arguably one of the finest documentaries ever made in the U.S. and possibly the best on the problems of organized labor, her place in film history would be assured. The strike began when the miners working for the Eastover Mining Co. joined the UMW, and its corporate parent, Duke Power, refused to sign the standard union contract. By living with the 180-odd families involved in the strike, Kopple shows the backbreaking burdens of the miners' life in the best of times and the looming fear of destitution in the worst. As the strikers strive to remain united through a difficult year, Kopple photographs the picketing, the company's use of state troopers to keep the roads open for scabs, the showdowns between the miners and strikebreakers brandishing firearms. After several shootings, one miner is finally killed. During the man's wake, a memorable sequence, his mother collapses. While the film i...