Should Kopple strive for impartiality in reporting on the strike? Of course not; the working conditions she chronicles in Harlan County, U.S.A. make the case for anyone not in Duke's direct employ. We see men dutifully performing their jobs under circumstances that would horrify us in Dickens, so that it takes some concentration on the viewer's part to bear in mind that this is set in America only 30 years ago. Two anecdotal arguments against the high-mindedness of Duke Power stand out: In one a miner recounts a foreman's instructions regarding a mule he's taking into the mines - if anything happens, the foreman tells him, be sure that the mule makes it to safety. In another we listen aghast as a corporate doctor discounts the connection between working in a coal mine and the development of black lung disease.
Thirteen months is a long time to go without work or a steady income and Kopple's immersion in her environment is such that the mounting desperation, frustration, and rage that the miners and their families feel as the strike drags on - and as picket lines thin, law enforcement becomes increasingly unsympathetic, and the staples of life become harder to attain - is imparted to the viewer with considerable force. The end of the strike is brought about at last through tragedy, and the ambivalence this gives rise to in the viewer - relief and outrage tug at us simultaneously - is a testament to Kopple's honesty as a filmmaker.
But what recommends Harlan County, U.S.A. most highly is Kopple's courage in taking sides and her commitment to the cause. It's bracing, and it's what I mean when I say that her documentary represents what film might (or perhaps once did) aspire to. Harlan County, U.S.A. is not offered as entertainment: At its least it's an impassioned indictment of those who would exploit the powerless and at best a call to arms. (If you're thinking of bringing Michael Moore into the conversation here, consider the fact that Kopple's voice is heard only once in the length of the movie and that she is never seen on-screen.) In one of the picture's pivotal scenes, an armed goon, paid by Duke, opens fire (with a gun, I mean) on a picket line in the dark hours before dawn and Kopple's crew turns their lights on him, illuminating his cowardice and depravity for the cameras, and thus for all to see. Where do we find that in a contemporary documentary, or even in contemporary journalism? It could be that committed liberals like Barbara Kopple have vanished from the stage of public discourse today. Even Kopple has turned to making junk cinema like Havoc.
Harlan County, U.S.A. is central to the traditions of the American documentary and American activism. Criterion has restored it to easy reach in a rich, new DVD transfer (a long-ago video release has become all but impossible to find) that includes a rewarding commentary track from Kopple and editor Nancy Baker, a making-of documentary, a fascinating interview with bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens, whose music is heard in the film, and many more pertinent extras. I don't mean to be complimentary when I say that Harlan County, U.S.A. shows us that America has come a long, long way. Perhaps our best hope for this new edition is not that cinéastes will discover it, but that a younger generation will, and will be inspired.
Run time: 103 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 28th September 1977
Distributed by: Cinema 5 Distributing
Production compaines: Cabin Creek Films
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 8.4 / 10
Director: Barbara Kopple
Producer: Barbara Kopple
Starring: Norman Yarborough as Himself - Eastover Mining President, Houston Elmore as Himself - UMW organizer, Phil Sparks as Himself - UMW staff, Bessie Lou Cornett as Herself, Lois Scott as Herself, Sudie Crusenberry as Herself, Mary Lou Fergerson as Herself, Basil Collins as Himself - mine foreman, Florence Reece as Herself
Also starring: Barbara Kopple