Harlan County, USA (Criterion Collection)
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Barbara Kopples Academy Awardwinning Harlan County USA unflinchingly documents a grueling coal miners strike in a small Kentucky town. With unprecedented access, Kopple and her crew captured the miners sometimes violent struggles with strikebreakers, local police, and company thugs. Featuring a haunting soundtrack with legendary country and bluegrass artists Hazel Dickens, Merle Travis, Sarah Gunning, and Florence Reese, the film is a heartbreaking record of the thirteen-month struggle between a community fighting to survive and a corporation dedicated to the bottom line.
A man crouches and pokes at what first appears to be a wad of chewed-up pink bubble gum on the ground. "That's what a scab will do to ya, by God," he says, his voice quavering with emotion. The pink wad is brain tissue from a striker shot in the head by a strikebreaker. That's one of the harsh realities of Harlan County USA. Barbara Kopple's documentary camera looks at this forgotten corner of 1970s America, the site of some of the bitterest labor violence in American history. It's hard to believe that some 40 years after the Depression, there were parts of Appalachia that were hardly better off than they were in the 1930s. The care-worn faces of the miners and their families speak volumes. They're the tough, proud faces of people struggling to make a living the way that their parents and grandparents did in generations past. Kopple skillfully weaves archival footage and traditional labor songs through the film to give a historical perspective to the strike against Eastover Mining Company. Above and beyond the labor issues, the film takes a hard look at the living conditions, health issues, and poverty faced by Harlan's residents, the human toll that goes along with the mining industry. The tense confrontations between Eastover's slimy security goons and the unionizers are particularly gripping, with the threat of violence hanging thick in the air. Sometimes ugly, always absorbing, this is an important, enlightening social record, one that serves the highest calling of the documentary filmmaker's art. --Jerry Renshaw --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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A few days later, I felt impelled to return to the library and get this VHS. I sat down to watch it one morning and could not turn it off. It's compelling, intriguing, educational and emotional. I cried several times, watching the struggle and learning more and more about a coal miner's life.
For the last few months, I've been doing research (in preparation for a book on Sears Homes) about Standard Oil's coal mines in Macoupin County, Illinois in the 1920s. "Harlan County" showed archival footage and presented information that showed what a miner's life looked like - through the ages. Duke Power's coal mines in Harlan County, Kentucky were so backwards and Standard Oil's coal mines in Macoupin County, Illinois were so progressive, that I learned more than I ever expected about early 1900s mining techniques.
The story about the man and the mules is something I'll never ever forget. Or the miner's conversation with the New York policeman. Thank God for the director Ms. Koppel, who was inspired to create this documentary! And for her having the wisdom and foresight to record these old miners' reminiscences of life in the coal mines in the early years of the 20th Century.
Suddenly, all the puzzle pieces from my months of book reading and research came together when I saw these old films and heard the miners talk.
I'll be watching it again and again - with my family, too. And I hope every person who uses electricity in this country will watch it, too.
An interesting aside - in the 1920s in Macoupin County, Illinois, one coal miner died (on average) for every 279,000 tons of coal that was mined. Between 1900-1969, 100,000 miners died in this country. Standard Oil's mines (operated from 1918-1925) in Macoupin County may have been the safest mines in the country, but several men died in those mines, too.
In 1918, Standard Oil of Indiana built 192 Sears Modern Homes for their (mostly immigrant) miners in Macoupin County. (The term "Modern Homes" simply meant that the houses had kitchens, bathrooms, running water, central heat and electricity.)
In 1973, Duke Power's miners in Harlan County were still living in shacks with no running water.
My mother grew up in those coal camps and knew no other life. She was pregnant with me during the filming of the documentary and worked at a small resturant where she met my daddy who was a coal miner. She stated that those times were hard and just left it at that...she did not speak about it very often and when she did...it was cut short. My dad made it through the riots and protesting, but he died in those mines in 1980 from a rock fall because the saftey conditions were so poor. My stepfather has worked in the coal mines for almost 30 years. He, like many others in Harlan are aware of the dangers when traveling into this deep graveside that holds so many.
I have watched this movie many times with my grandmother who was right there on the picket lines protesting these conditions. When we watch it now, she always points at the television and says...you know that is such and such...it's funny how she never forgets who and what that time was about.
My generation of Harlan County USA has seen little of what our parents and grandparents endured back in the 1970s. My brother has now entered the world of coal mining and the tradition continues. It is much safer now. My father wants to be a Mine and Saftey inspector because he remembers what it was like and how far they have come. Coal mining is our legacy, our way of life. We hold it high and its the most respectable, honest way to make a living that you can have in our town.
We in Harlan County will never forget the documentary that showed the world who we are and what we are made of...and let it be known, that we will never back down from a fight.
I recall being vaguely aware of some of the United Mine Workers' concerns as a young man, but in the post-Vietnam)/Watergate era, it probably was something of a back burner story. I'm sure if I had seen this film at age 23, I would have been properly outraged. To be honest, however, I'm not sure how long that outrage would have lasted. In that tumultuous era there seemed to be so much else to be upset about. (Not that there isn't today, but I do have at least a little more perspective.)
Now more than 30 years after the events this film depicts, we can at least begin to sort out and separate this particular human drama from all the others that were clamoring for our attention at the time. And appreciate it on its own terms, at the same time understanding that issues of social injustice and exploitation were emblematic of the day.
Filmmaker Barbara Kopple and her crew did a masterful job of capturing the lives and struggles of the mining families of Harlan County. These are people you get to know and care about over the course of the two hour documentary. It's a group portrait, of course, and you know that there's more to these folks' individual lives than the camera can show. But those moments the camera does capture are poignant and dramatic, and ultimately profoundly moving.
I was glad to read from one poster below that the living conditions for Harlan County residents and workers really have improved over the past few decades. It's heartening to know that the struggle of the current generation's parents and grandparents yielded a better life for their progeny. But we know that similar struggles are taking place all over the globe. Saying that this classic documentary is still relevant 30 years on is not a just a cliche. It's a bitter truth.
(If you're at all prone to running your own double bills, you might also be interested in John Sayles' affecting drama MATEWAN about an earlier era in the miners' struggle.)