Powerful Powerful Powerful I was introduced to this film while pursuing my undergrad degree. Our professor was a wild-haired sociology PhD that taught a class called, "The Sociology of Cultural Movements and Popular Struggle". He was fond of telling students at the beginning of the semester that he had been kicked out of more institutions than they had attended. The professor didn't say much before showing the film, but I do recall, perhaps because of its erie delivery, that the professor used the word, "powerful", repeatedly, and held up a single finger in the air. I remember his eyes scanning across our faces with out a single blink in his eyes. He knew what he was about to introduce us to. He knew that this film would change our lives. He shut off the lights and took a seat in the back of the classroom. No one moved over the two days he showed this film. We laughed and smiled when we should have, we bit our lips, we clenched our fists, we felt the small victories and joy, and thankfully, the lights were out, because I am fairly sure that more than a handful of people wiped away some tears, too. I recall that this film even managed to silence the usual sarcastic rhetoric of even the biggest class clowns. I have been haunted by this film since that initial viewing, it is a landmark of journalistic achievment.
Previous to the film's release on DVD, I would sometimes borrower it from the public library on VHS. Despite going completely retro adjusting the tracking, and tolerating the lousy, faded picture, I justified the discomfort because this film is much, much more than mere entertainment. This film stands up to repeated viewings and study. It requires time. These people give you everything they have, and all they ask for in return is some of your time.
The cast of this film are coal miners and their families. These are people barely getting by, employed in a thankless and dangerous profession, living in poverty, and yet full of passion and unbroken hope. Most did not have running water. Your printer is probably worth more than all of the worldly possessions these people owned. They had cars that barely ran, but the vehicle got them to work. They had each other, and that's about it. However, when they realized, collectively, and decided, collectively, that the time had come to unionize and attempt to improve their lives, they met with some resistance to say the least. They risked not only the very little that they had, they risked their lives in some cases to make a better life for their children and grandchildren. This is a documentary of heroes, real, day to day heroes that we might never know about under ordinary media coverage.
In this modern day, when the documentary has come into full vogue with a major force, this film still remains the finest documentary I have ever seen. More than anything else, this is, to me, a deeply American film, but I must tell you, I mean that in the same sense that Howard Zinn might say it. This is popular struggle. This is how it is done. This is not the glorious, bloody revolution, but is instead the day after day struggle for positive change with dedication, sweat, tears, two steps forward and three steps back, passionate victories, a silence, and a child sleeping sounder in the still of the night. Thankfully, Barbara Kopple dedicated her time, energy, and creativity to this masterpiece of documentary journalism and captured an important piece of populist history for humankind.
If you are new to this film, I really encourage you to watch it, you have nothing to lose and so much to gain. Watch it with your family and your children. Discuss it, think about it. These are not actors. These are people struggling for everything that they have in this world just short of their souls. If you have seen it, watch it again, for the first time, and remember what real patriotism feels, looks, and sounds like.
An excellent documentary This review is for the Criterion Collection DVD edition of the film.
Harlan County U.S.A. is a documentary about a coal miner's strike in Harlan County in Southeast Kentucky. The film documents the cause of the strike and its resolution.
I was apalled at the depolorabe housing conditions of the miners and their families. They were living in shacks with no running water or electricity. The strikebreakers also had violent encounters with the striking miners.
The filmmakers interviews various people and document the history of coal mining in the United States. I learned a bit too and really enjoyed the film. The movie has an original soundtrack with amateur singers performing songs they have written.
The DVD includes a theatrical trailer, audio commentary by director Kopple and editor Nancy Baker, a documentary on the making of the film, with interviews with the filmmmakers and strikers, outtakes, an interview with bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens, an interview with John Sayles, and a discussion of the film featuring Roger Ebert at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
This is one of better documentaries I've seen on the subject of the workplace and I highly recommend it....more info
an overwhelming account of the mine-workers struggle, This documentary kept me glued to my seat. Being born and raised in coal country (WV) and being a union man, it really touched me. This is a must see for anyone raised near a mine and for any union member....more info
A bit one-sided, but courageous Ms. Kopple was a young whippersnapper of a New York documentarist in the early seventies, and the mining strike at Brookside was her big opportunity. The depictions of the miners are very realistic and at times even entertaining. I can still hear Basil Collins saying "The Longshoremens' is known communiss, the Teamsters' is known communiss......whut will become of are country?"
In her film, the miners are depicted as poor, benighted strugglers against a positively evil adversary. She trots out film clips of folks like John L. Lewis, the original gangster of the U.M.W.A., as though his voice mattered in this situation. It would have been nice if she had looked more deeply into some of the criminal records of those miners and union officials she lionizes, and into some of the wonderfully selfless deeds of people like Norman Yarbrough, whom she seemed to paint as oppressors.
Fast forward to 2006. Most of the miners in the movie are probably dead, of rockfall, lung cancer, etc., their labor gains long lost in the dust of history. Meanwhile, Ms. Kopple continues make cynical documetaries for film festivals like Sundance.
Harlan County U.S.A., while entertaining, glorified violence, and was, ultimately, a hustle. Far from being about helping miners, it was more about advancing Ms. Kopple's career as a "relevant" liberal documentary producer. And it worked.
Stunning. Harlan County U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
In June of 1973, the eyes of America turned to a small rural county in the very southeast corner of Kentucky, Harlan. Harlan, the home of the Brookside Mine and Prep Plant, owned by Eastover Coal, was no stranger to mine-related tension; for a while during the Depression it was known as Bloody Harlan County. That moniker threatened to rear its ugly head once again when the workers at Brookside voted to join the United Mineworker's Union, and subsequently went on strike. While the resulting chaos is also the subject of a fictional film (Harlan County War, which is actually sitting here waiting for me to watch it), the first feature-length treatment of the subject was Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.
Kopple's approach here is simple: travel around the county interviewing everyone in sight to get as many perspectives on what's going on as possible. As a result, her team became kind of invisible, and there are some surprising scenes to be found here. She also concentrates on the role women played in the uprising; many workers' wives joined their husbands on the picket lines, putting themselves in the sights. You don't even need to be a specifically feminist filmmaker to get the message across here; whatever your sex, if you were in Harlan County in 1973, you took sides, and you were in danger.
In a film like this, you can pretty much throw the technical considerations to the wind, as what's going to grab you is the subject matter itself. Which is a good thing, because when you're filming strike-breakers carrying ill-concealed rifles, you don't really have time to set up professional-looking shots. That's what gives this its immediacy, even thirty-odd years later. This is as gripping as any Hollywood thriller, and is well worth checking out, even if you know nothing of the situation in question. ****
LAWRENCE JONES - LAY THE LEAD TO THEM Independent Cyber-Punk/Industrial Rock act THE S1ND1CATE named a song after the miner who lost his life in Harlan County. The track is from their newest release RELOADED, and is called "LAWRENCE JONES."
Fantastic documentary One of the best documentaries I've ever seen. They still don't make documentaries like this one. Very real. At the same time you develop a great deal of affection and concern for the characters, you are slightly horrified by the things they do. The backstory told in the "making of" and commentary just make it that more amazing. ...more info
Harlan County, USA
This movie won an academy award as best documentary. Wow! it deserved it. A real Eastern Kentucky experience on the coal mining business. Terrific interviews. Great songs by real people. When I pay almost thirty bucks for a DVD and am more than satisfied, it is truly a great movie. This movie goes from family member to friends to acquaintances. Nobody has been disappointed. Hooray for the miners! Thanks to coal miners everywhere....more info
one of the best documentarys ever Granted, very few documentary filmmakers are blessed enough to have such colorful characters who almost seem to be better suited to a melodrama, but the (real-life) cast is just one of the great things about this movie.
It reminds us of a time when workers, although having little formal education, knew about class struggle. Some of the women in this film are astounding in their will to help the men working in the mines achieve their contract. Of all the characters in the film, Bessie and Lois may be two of the most admirable people I've ever seen.
You also learn about right-wing paranoia in the form of Basil Collins, who ascribes any instance of workers attempting to better their living situation as "communism." Sound familiar?
Finally, I should add that the music in this film is incredible. You can buy the soundtrack, too, and I recommend that you do....more info
Great movie..but not the entire story! The Movie didnt tell much about the people of Harlan County..Henry Ford first exploited the people here at Wallins KY to mine coal to make coke to make his automobiles..untill then the people of this area were totaly self sufficient and didnt need a thing... most spoke several launguages..and were for the most part more educated than the rest of the US...So Henry Ford decided to do us a favor!..Just goes to show you technology isnt always a good thing!..Would have been a nice add in to the movie I think??...I'm in Harlan County..was here during the strike...and remember my grandparents talking of all the battles here in the 30's....This strike was nothing compared to the Days when "Bloody Harlan " got its name...As far as this movie goes?...Just another average strike In Harlan County*S*...more info
Very well done Doc This is one of the best done documentiers I have seen in some time, it gets to the hart of the ppl right off the start and keeps the viewer in pace with the situation and the times.
Highly recommended for personal or education use....more info
Harlan County USA - One-sided depiction Having grown up and lived in Harlan, I was quite familiar with some of the instances documented in this film. While the elements depicted are relatively accurate, based on my recollections, it's fairly one-sided in that it leaves out the sins of the unionization advocates. It makes them out to be heroes and the mine owners the villains, when in actuality, there were villains on both sides, and probably of equivalent extremes. What is omitted is the context. Instances such as when pro-union forces firing high-powered rifles into the roofs of school buses purchased and painted green to transport non-union workers to another mining operation owned by others just upstream from Eastover Mining Company just a few short years after the Eastover union problems had been settled.
While it's a reasonably factual account for the issues presented, it was obviously produced for the purpose of demonizing non-union advocates to pull at the public's heartstrings against the "evil" corporations....more info
Interesting Documentary I grew up in a county bordering Harlan County. As coal company employees my father and uncle both experienced the strikes of the seventies, and the associated violence, so this documentary appealed to me for those reasons. Despite what appears to me to unfortunately be socialist or "progressive" undertones, Kopple does a good job of depicting the life of the eastern Kentucky coal miner in the early seventies. Although the UMWA has outlived its usefulness, the documentary illustrates why it was necessary at one time.
One minor quibble on my part: anyone who grew up or lives in eastern Kentucky knows the sterling reputation of the Kentucky State Police, and their absolute refusal to take sides in a strike, only getting involved for the purpose of keeping roads open and preventing violence. The incorrect portrayal of them as biased against the strikers is limited, and only a slight distraction.
The commentary by the crew some 20 years after filming gives us an interesting view from their perspective as "big city outsiders" who were fortunate enough to find mountain folks willing to share their lives and homes with them. Surviving in the seventies a place those of us in the area called "bloody Harlan" was also a laudable accomplishment, again considering that the crew was made up of outsiders.
Overall a very good documentary that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the Kentucky coal strikes of the seventies....more info
Moving documentary I saw this documentary in a theater when it was first released in the 1970's. 30 years later, many of the images remained etched in my mind. I was shocked to see the living conditions of the miners and their families. I was moved by their stories of struggle and perseverance. We often forget that coal miners risk their lives every day so that we can stay warm and have light in our homes. Regardless of how you feel about unions, this movie will make an impression on you. Highly recommended....more info
Wow!!! Possibly the most powerful documentary ever! Never could I imagine in the U.S.A., the most developed country in the world, i'd see people working or living in the same conditions as these people were in Harlan county. What impressed me the most was how strong the strike workers' wives were to join their husbands at the picket line. The scene were they defiantly blocked the road with their vehicles and refused to allow the scabs/picket crossers to pass, especially with guns drawn at them brought tears to my eyes. Two thumbs up! A+++...more info
Where are people of this courage today? When I saw this documentary it confirmed what Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States 1492 - the Present" talked about regarding the hard fought victories of early unionism in America. I was grabbed by the throat emotionally by this documentary and its grip did not stop with the end of the film. Union members literally get beaten, shot, disrespected, and dismissed by the mine owners and their goon squads.
What impresses me most is the courage of these miners, their wives and families. With union membership in America down to 9% it makes me wonder where are those who will fight for a decent living wage, health care, a safe and healthy environment, and a future for their children. These coal miners set an example for everyone who seeks a more just society. Their solidarity is remarkable under any circumstances, but especially so where law enforcement was owned by the coal company.
The coal miners of Harlan County are the kind of activist citizens who make me proud to be an American. I just hope a follow up documentary will be done to see what the situation is there now.
Accurate miner depiction - management short changed. Harlan County, USA is as close as you can get in profiling the southeastern Kentucky miner in the 1970s. I found it only partially accurate in presenting the full story of the strike itself from a management point of view.
Norman Yarborough, president of Eastover Mining, had the sincerest intentions in helping the miners when he put together Eastover. However, some of his methods were out of the old text book and simply reinforced the traditional mindset. Under these circumstances, the Company was doomed from the start.
Likewise, the movie failed to fully reveal all of the drama surrounding the conflict between Brookside's UMW and the SLU at Eastover's neighboring mine 12 miles down the road.
The aftermath of the strike never got a sequel. Too bad since the situation dramatically changed. I played a small part in this change when Norman Yarborough and his management team hired me to come in and assist them in "bringing them and the miners into the 20th century". I spent six days a week for eight months with both the miners and management. It was an exciting experience....more info
A great documentary about a miners' strike, justice and America 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. 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 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. ...more info
I had always despised unions until I saw this movie As they say in Appalachia, boys and girls- it don't get more realer than this... these people are tougher than woodpecker lips....more info
Harlan County is TRUE Growing up as a "coal miner's daughter" in Ky myself I can assure you this is spot-on accurate. Mining in a KY small town is often the only means to successfully support your family. My father worked in a union mine and after as a "company man" but even union strikes were frightening and often violent as so much was at stake. We were often shipped off to another town for safety while my dad would guard the house. This was in the mid 70's as well.
I admire the accurate depiction of the people in this documentary. I expected them to be depicted as sterotypical uneducated southern rednecks and what I saw were wise, passionate and well-spoken (albeit with a southern drawl!) The WOMEN were amazing and fearless. Would love to see a followup to what has happened to the town and the people 30+ years later....more info
Life or Death, KY Contrary to what the prior reviewer said this documentary is one of the best documentations of working class struggle in the United States. What this film portrays is the inner workings of the way workers and their families become conscious and weary of exploitive practices of the company, and the epiphanies that occur in order to overcome these malpractices. In that function this film is a masterpiece, it won an oscar rightly so because its impact on the viewer is so earth shattering.
The movie begins by showing the absolute impoverished lives of the mine workers who are virtually in feudal bondage to company tenement housing with no paved roads,running water, or electricity. Through a series of betrayals both from the company,the working class(scabs), AND THE UNION, the workers experience many cathartic moments in their campaign for material relief,rights and dignity. Some of these epiphanies are difficult to understand if you're not coming from the perspective of a highly impoverished industrial laborer, and include the rationalization of violence in defense of maintaining the strike and defying the declarations of the union.
Yes this is a biased documentary, the very concept of a documentary chooses to leave the comfort of neutrality and take a position, to choose a subject as a protagonist against an antagonist. You would find yourself very bored if you had to watch a two hour movie about how 'objectively everyone is right in their view, all we can do is observe and hope we just all get along', that's just NOT how the world works. Imagine trying to watch a movie about the Auschwitz rationalized on both sides, history would occur on film as it did in nazi germany, as a necessary process for the 'Vaterland', a crime to ignore for the sake the the majority. Now fortunately documentaries take the side of the oppressed prisoners most of the time, and we can see through this subjective view how insidious and evil these crimes were*. If we put this in perspective, a film that objectively just interviewed, got the rational view points and had some omnipotent view of the miners strike would in-fact only reinforce the reality as it occurred then,'it's unfortunate that all these accidents occur in the mines but the country needs coal more than you need you lungs,your family, or your life. Therefore, in the name of progress scabs will work your job and hopefully these inconvenient battles can stop, hope you understand you de-evolved luddite bum!'. Of course, this reality is a basic untruth and it was forcefully destroyed by the collective action of the UMWA vis-a-vis an enormous internal pitched revolt in the rank-and-file and the creation of this movie.
If you are totally sympathetic to scabs and exploitive managers, this movie will just upset you and make you feel hatred or indifference. If you want to see a documentary about how scabs are just trying to make living and companies provide ample amount of services or money to their workers watch the news, but if the contradiction of working people turning on each other perplexes you,that the only formal institutions the working class has to defend it are paradoxically controlled by company men, this documentary will show you the only means the impoverished have to combat it:their solidarity,their bodies,sticks, and stones.
(*note: It is because of the action of the allies that this reality and untruth were defeated that a documentary can expose the concetration detainees plight)...more info
Harrowing County HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A. (1976)
Located in eastern Kentucky, Harlan had long been a focal point of labor/management strife. In 1932 the struggle between the United Mine Workers and strikebreakers was so sanguinary this historic episode became known as the "Harlan County War." We see and hear a few survivors of those dark days, including a woman who wrote "Whose Side Are You On?," a protest song that has since entered the American folk music canon.
The bulk of the story however concerns the (then) current efforts of local workers to unionize against Duke Power Co. Given substandard housing by Duke (barren shacks that had no indoor plumbing) and with inadequate medical benefits, the plight of these men and their families is tremendous. Especially moving are the many victims of black lung disease, a condition management stubbornly denied was caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust.
Worse still is the 18 month ordeal all endured in a desperate fight for unionization. This program's remarkable footage includes threats of company violence and an armed attack at 5 AM against a peaceful picket line by foreman Basil Collins and his goons. The morning's silence is suddenly broken by machine gun fire and an unarmed striker is killed. This tragic event was the catalyst that brought management and union to the bargaining table, where a partial victory was gained for strikers.
In the larger picture, the UMWA itself was embroiled in its own turmoil. An unscrupulous President ('Tony' Boyle) got voted out by members in favor of a man represented as a labor champion (Tom Williams), yet when all 140,000 mine workers struck, the deal hammered out may have increased wages somewhat, but their right to strike at the local level was revoked.
The contract passed by an underwhelming majority and our story ends where it began: with miners exposed to a hazardously unhealthy work environment and without a legal right to strike against such conditions. The significant difference: this ban now applied nationwide and not just to Harlan County, KY. The film's final message assured more battles to come.
"Harlan County U.S.A." is also available on DVD.
HARLAN COUNTY WAR (2000) is a TV movie starring Holly Hunter that draws its story from the 1973 strike. (VHS) (DVD)
Parenthetical number preceding title is a 1 to 10 viewer poll rating found at a film research website.
(8.5) Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) - 'Tony' Boyle/Tom Williams/Chip Yablonski/William Simon/John L. Lewis/John Corcoran/Basil Collins...more info
scab hater william caputo sounds like the kinda feller that steals dead flys from blind spiders when he is not busy stealing food from honest hard working people or proclaiming the virtues of scumba... i mean scabs....more info
Extremely Biased Film Portrays Strikers As "Angels" I love how this movie portrays the striking coal miners and their wives as innocent angels while the scabs are called "gun thugs" who just open fire on innocently peaceful protesters with machine guns.
The film-maker spends 99% of the film with the strikers and doesn't try too hard to get the opinions of the scabs and mining company workers.
After all, scabs are people who do the work that the miners do not want to do themselves. The work has to be done anyway.
The mining company in this film not only gave its employees wages but also housed all of them too. Of course the wages and housing conditions are lousy but HOUSING EMPLOYEES IS NOT AN EMPLOYER'S JOB!
Any sane person (or anyone who has seen a major strike in person) finds it hard to believe that the scabs are the sole instigators during strikes and that the strikers are the pure victims. Scabs are just trying to go to work and support their families too but are violently harassed by strikers who can do the same work but choose not to. If the work is good enough for the scabs, then why isn't it good enough for the strikers?
Strikers also use more than just words to taunt scabs. They use sticks, clubs and occasionally guns or knives to hurt scabs whom they believe are taking their jobs away from them. In this film, when the scabs defend themselves for the right to go into work without getting hurt or killed by the hot-tempered strikers, it is the scabs who are always portrayed as the "gun thugs" and "evil" while the strikers are always seen being saint-like, perfectly behaved and unjustly discriminated against.
Why else are police officers on the scene of most major strikes? To protect the strikers? Hell no. They are there to protect the scabs who are trying to go into work but are subjected to constant harassment by the strikers.
This film even has the token black striker, who happens to get along with all of the white striker folks. But guess who uses the "n-word" in this movie toward a black person? You guessed it...an evil scab.
I wonder if this film would have shown the strikers' reaction to a black scab if there was one. Probably not.
Bottom line: If you are pro-union and believe scabs are the scum of the Earth and that strikers can do no wrong, then "Harlan County, U.S.A." is the movie for you.
HardLuck County, USA I remembered this film winning the Oscar for Best Ducumentary back in the 1970's. I remember really wanting to see it but, especially back then, it was pretty hard to come across documentaries on TV (forget about movie theaters). Thus it was with great pleasure that I noticed it on the April schedule of the Independent Film Channel. My politics have changed over the years so I haven't rushed out to join a union or volunteer to parade in a pickett line after watching "Harlan County, USA". However, I was fascinated with the up-close and personal film that told a very compelling story. The glimpses of the mines, the miners in their squalid homes, the anger and determination, the tedium and the violence all brought together the sort of documentary that underlines the adage "Truth is Stranger than Fiction".
This film excels by bringing the story to life through the people that live it. There are a number of men and women who seem to take the lead and a number of men and women who tell the story of what happened a couple of generations earlier. There are side stories about Black Lung disease and the Yablonski murders (that I remember well). There is a sort of epilogue that suggests a mixed future for the mine workers.
I read a couple of reviews by indiviuals who said that they were from the area and could attest first-hand to the short-comings of the documentary. I couldn't help but notice a telling scene or two where the strike-breakers were armed with guns and the strikers were armed with clubs. I also noticed that there were at least a couple of scenes where the union leaders were advocating calm and reason in the wake of violence by the strike-breakers. I knew better than to take this at face value and I appreciated those reviews that confirmed that there was violence on both sides. The issue of unionizing and striking are not simple ones especially in a society that celebrates individuality. The strike-breakers were portrayed as evil which is very debatable (and there was no look at the strike-breakers view by the makers of "Harlan County, USA"). They had families to feed as well. I would grant them that they chose to continue on in order to take care of those they were responsible for. I know of plenty of tales in other parts of the country where violence was more prevalent on the union side than the other and the lack of seeing any other point of view just confirms my suspicions of the bias in this film. That said, I came away from the movie with the sense that neither side was faring very well in the conditions they worked in. It was illuminating to finally see the story that I followed in the newspapers back then. ...more info
Which Side Are You On, Which Side Are You On? "Harlan County USA" is an excellent, compelling documentary. Depicting a strike by coal miners in West Virginia in the early 70s, the film gives a snapshot of arguably the last years of the "organized labor era" that began in the 30s. We see how the miners' families lived- they were very poor even by the standards at the time; mothers give their children baths in tin tubs, for example. Despite the poverty and hardship, the community sticks together, and eventually wins.
Particularly interesting was how larger social changes are reflected in the strike. For example, black miners are welcome and included in the miners' community. In addition, the miners' wives play a very big role in organizing and generating support for the strike. At one point, some of them directly confront the sheriff about the picket line- women would probably not have done that, especially in West Virginia, 20 years earlier. Further, it will probably surprise a lot of people to know that there was a grassroots labor movement in the south, but there was. How "union" became a dirty word in dixie even for those who would benefit from one is a complicated subject outside the scope of the movie.
Throughout, we hear the inspired folk labor songs of the great Hazel Dickens. It's almost worth the movie just to hear her sing. Dickens herself is a daughter of a coal-mining family, and is very familiar with labor struggles.
In sum, watch this if you want a real-life depiction of a unique American time and place....more info
Harlan County, U.S.A. Filmed between 1973 and 1974, Kopple's groundbreaking work gets up close and personal with the downtrodden rural miners, who are deprived of fair wages and insurance, and forced to shop at the company store. As her roving, restless camera makes plain, Eastover operates in collusion with the Harlan police, who look the other way when its representatives start taking pot shots at miners (and Kopple herself). Few documentaries today have the immediacy, intensity, or militant appeal of this Oscar-winning film, an edge-of-your-seat tribute to a courageous group of hard hats and their families. "Harlan County, USA" is real-life drama of the highest order....more info
"Which side are you on"? Let me just start off by stating that is one of the most powerful emotional and memorable documentaries in the Criterion Collection and in the film industry.
We are introduced to a small quaint impoverished town of Harlan County Kentucky where hard working young Americans perservere over the harsh and hazardous dangers of mining. These miners work incredibly long strenuous hours for meager wages and at what a price. They are prone to collapsing caves, black lung, and other pernicious long term damages. These hazardous and deadly conditions are all apart of their daily lives in order to support their loving and devoted wives. When the mining company refused to approve a UMW agreement for a contract this small little town abrupts with malice, frustration, and anxiety. There is nothing more exhilerating and pleasurable than watching a group of determined Americans subjugate over Cooperate America. As I watched this town gather and form a potent and indestructible bond against "Scabs" or gun thugs I couldn't help but route and praise them for their determination. This town is cruelly beaten by local sheriffs and gun thugs and risk their lives as some spend nights in jail. There goal is make sure everyone is to be out at that picket line at exhausting pre-dawn hours. My most favorable scene is during the strike at Wall St, this strike is just about creeping up at 9 months where a fellow mine worker and local NYPD officer converse on a deep personal level regarding occupations conditions. It is simply one of the most poignant and moving scenes ever captured not too mention an unfortunate death of a young American who leaves behind a 16 year old wife and a 5 month old daughter. This documentary is truly a masterpiece and I personally praise Barbara Kopple and her team of talented editors and the beautiful cinematography. The bluegrass soundtrack only contributes to the blood sweat and tears that these hard working Americans endured. Just like the mine workers this talented director also risked her life everyday being out there on the picket line as she witnesses live shootings and intimidation by gun thugs. As usual the Criterion Collection still sustains its reputation of delivering important, intriguing, and beautiful masterpieces. ...more info
Harlan County, U.S.A I was born in Harlan County but escaped to spend a career in the US Air Force. When this strike happened I was overseas and the event escaped my notice until just now. I do remember the absolute poverty of the coal camps but they were no worse than lumber camps or the homes of many who worked for neither. During my youth the third most profitable industry was moonshine, now its pot. My Dad owned a small independent mine for a period but was forced out of business by union miners who threatened his leased truckers to the point that they refused to transport his coal over Pine Mountain to the railroad. Life has not progressed in Harlan County today as it has in other parts of the US; in fact, during my last visit I thought that it was worse than when I was a child helping Dad at his mine (early 1950s.) However, I still was moved by this film as much as I have ever beeen moved by a movie. Well worth watching!...more info