Harlan County, U.S.A.


Harlan County, U.S.A. Review

Winner of the 1976 Best Feature Documentary Oscar and an inductee into the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, Barbara Kopple's extraordinary Harlan County, U.S.A. is more than a moving and purposeful documentary: it's an example of what film can be, or maybe what it might have been. The film recounts first-hand a classic American labor dispute: in 1973 the miners at the rural Kentucky Eastover Mining Company voted to join the United Mine Workers, and Duke Power, Eastover's North Carolina-based parent corporation, refused the standard union agreement the UMW put forth. What followed was a 13-month strike involving 180 Kentucky families. Kopple and her crew relocated to Harlan County for the duration of the strike, giving her an ideal vantage point: Her insider status assured her remarkable access to the strikers (her crews infiltrate so far as the men's showers, for instance), even while she and her cameramen remain culturally apart. What's not reported are the strategies of the powers-that-be at Duke; like The Battle of Algiers before it, Harlan County, U.S.A. is a film that advocates a position, and that position is steadfastly pro-labor. When Duke Power sees the barbarians at its gates, it cannot but help notice that there's a film crew among them.

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.

Harlan County, U.S.A.

Facts and Figures

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%
Fresh: 8

IMDB: 8.4 / 10

Cast & Crew



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: