Harlan County, USA: Barbara Kopple Seminal, Oscar-Winning Documentary

Coming from an affluent Scarsdale New York family, Barbara Kopple first has achieved fame as a documentarian by paying tributes to working-class heroes, ordinarily people that are not seen on the American screen–big screen or small screen.

Her ideology, which combines elements of Old Left socialism with American populism, is evident in two excellent docus about the complexity of contemporary unionism.

Her first major documentary, , Harlan County, USA made audiences realize how little they know about labor, industry, and politics–and how much information the media screen out of their reportage.

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

At 26, Kopple spent four years (1972-76) in the coalfields of Kentucky recording the struggle of unionized miners against wage cuts. Praised for its militancy and frankness, Harlan County tells the story of a strike at the Brookside Mine Works from the workers’ point of view. It focuses particularly on the miners’ wives, many of whom woke up to politics during the strike and went on to become the main forces behind it.

A landmark documentary, Harlan County chronicles the 13-month-struggle, in 1973-4, by coal miners in Eastern Kentucky to obtain the standard United Mine Workers contract from the Duke Power Company, an organization that made its own laws and hired its own militia. The world of the coal miners seems almost exotic in its unfamiliarity–working conditions are so deplorable, that the story seems to belong to the mythic past of American Westerns.

Kopple had first come to the area to follow the Miller-Boyle election contest for the presidency of the United Mine Workers, but a a few weeks in Harlan County convinced her to document the conflict. Her film, an intimate, fascinating portrait of the miners and their families, follows the workers’ efforts to organize.

With no formal training in film, Kopple’s first weeks on location were difficult, because people would not open up to her. However, she ended up staying a whole year in Harlan County, living in the miners, who let her camera penetrate every aspect of their world. At the end, Kopple was so immersed in the issues that she felt as if she herself was engaged in the struggle.

Made for $200,000, Harlan County may have been the first movie in which two months of shooting were financed with a Master Charge card. To finish the film, Kopple went $60,000 into debt, but it didn’t matter.

Kopple’s commitment to the issues is evident in every frame: The miners and their wives talk as if there is no camera around, as if they are talking to friends, with their emotions always close to the surface. The film is entirely partisan, but seeing the strike through the miners’ eyes proves to be an asset. Kopple goes right inside the miners’ lives, their families, their struggle. The film shows picketing, ugly confrontations, and even a shooting. Elaborate.

The miners’ strength and solidarity are based on their economic power. However, when coal mining becomes marginal to the region’s economy, they lose their assertive ability to fight. Harlan County is a moving work, which illuminates the valor of coal mining.

The bitter strike divided the town. Afterwards, some strikebreakers joined the Ku Klux Klan, and a public school principal had the home economics class make their robes. Kopple suggests that the United Mine Workers might have sold out in 1974, after the Harlan strike had ended, by recommending acceptance of a national mine contract that curtails local strikes. The film does not call this a sell out, but all the miners’ reactions shown before the vote are negative, even though the overall membership ratified the contract.

Critical Status:

Harlan County, U.S.A. won the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

In 1990, the docu was chosen by Congress as one of 25 films to be placed on its Film Registry, hence conferring on it the status of a national treasure.