#501) Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)

#501) Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)

OR “Duke It Out”

Directed by Barbara Kopple

Class of 1990 

The Plot: In 1973, the miners of the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, vote to join the United Mine Workers of America. When Brookside and Duke Power Company refuse to sign a new contract, the miners go on strike. Filmmaker Barbara Kopple documents the thirteen month strike from the perspective of the miners, as well as their wives who join them on the picket line. With management that is refusing to cooperate, memories of the similarly distressing Harlan County War of the 1930s, and the “gun thugs” hired to intimidate the protesters, “Harlan County U.S.A.” only cares about one question: which side are you on?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film an “unvarnished examination” of the strike, calling Kopple’s direction “an important digression from ‘direct cinema’ toward a more personal filmmaking style.” There’s also an essay by writer/AMPAS archivist Randy Haberkamp.

But Does It Really?: Like many great documentaries, “Harlan County” covers a specific time and place in U.S. history that could easily go ignored, and reminds us that we are still fighting the same fights supposedly “won” by earlier generations. “Harlan County” is an engaging documentary that, thanks to its continued cultural relevancy (whether that’s a good thing or not), is more than deserving of its spot in the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Barbara Kopple was studying psychology at Northeastern University, and opted to make a short film about her study of lobotomy patients in lieu of writing a thesis that “no one would read”. After graduating, she studied film at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and did odd jobs working for Albert and David Maysles. While trying to raise funds for “Harlan County”, Kopple worked on other documentaries, including sound for “Hearts and Minds“.

Wow, That’s Dated: In addition to the overall ’70s-ness of the film, “Harlan County” references then-current Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon, the Impeach Nixon movement, and Jimmy Hoffa (still alive and accounted for in 1973). Oh, and the sexism. Lots of your standard ’70s sexism hurled at these women.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Harlan County” was a critical success, and would go on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary – presented by no less than Lillian Hellman! Immediately after the win, Barbara Kopple called Harlan, and was able to hear car horns honking and shouts of “We won! We won!”

Other notes 

  • Like quite a few documentaries on this list, “Harlan County” began as a completely different movie. Kopple had originally intended to make a film about the Miners for Democracy, and their 1972 effort to unseat Tony Boyle as president of the United Mine Workers of America. While filming in Triangle, Virginia, Kopple learned of the miners strike in Brookside, Kentucky, and made the eight hour drive to get some footage. Once there, she decided the strike was a more interesting subject for a movie, and the Miners for Democracy story became a brief subplot in the final film.
  • While filming the strikers, Kopple initially didn’t tell anyone who she was, which led to rumors of a “hippie crew from New York”. Once Kopple introduced herself to the strikers, they were more trusting and open to her and the crew, and even let them lodge in their homes.
  • “Harlan County” is bookended by footage of coal miners in the actual coal mines. These scenes were a last minute suggestion by cinematographer Hart Perry, who pointed out that they had filmed zero footage of actual coal mining, despite that being at the core of the film. Hart used his knowledge of geology (he majored in geology at Columbia) to convince a local coal mine to let him film the workers.
  • Between this, “Norma Rae“, the “Republic Steel Strike Footage“, I guess I’ve been on a union kick lately. Though thankfully my own involvement with unions have never led to strikes or violence, a lot of the arguments presented in “Harlan” from both sides ring true almost 50 years later. Union always sees management as stubborn exploitative capitalists, and management always sees union workers as free-loading communists.
  • Also from the “Some Things Never Change” file: America being behind other countries in terms of worker safety, and wage increases far lower than the cost of living (and way below wage increase at the top). Turns out America has always really, really sucked at investing in its working class.
  • A majority of the film’s soundtrack is provided by songwriter/activist Hazel Dickens, who wrote four songs specifically for the movie. Turns out there are more songs about Harlan County than love, New York, and garlic combined.
  • The Tony Boyle subplot is still in the movie, and is a reminder of the lengths some corrupt figures will go to to stay in power. In 1969, Boyle’s presidency was challenged by labor leader Joseph Yablonski, who was found murdered in his home (along with his wife and daughter) a few months later. During filming of “Harlan”, Boyle was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Boyle died in prison in 1985.
  • Once the main conflict is established, “Harlan County” uses two people to epitomize either side of the strike: strike organizer Lois Scott, depicted here as a relentless fighter and everyday hero, and strikebreaker Basil Collins, the film’s gun-wielding, slur-spouting heavy. And yes, his name really is Basil Collins, like the drink.
  • Easily the most disturbing moment in the whole film is when the scabs open fire on the strikers at night, followed by a shot of the scabs trying to break Barbara Kopple’s camera. The fourth wall comes breaking down in this moment; making you acknowledge the real danger of the situation for everyone, including the crew. It left me on edge for the rest of the movie.
  • While the strikers’ subsequent “eye for an eye” mentality is equally problematic, it does give us the great image of Lois Scott pulling a gun out of her bra.
  • Despite the amount of violence in this film, Barbara Kopple later stated that she believes her presence at these events helped deescalate these standoffs, stating that no one wanted to be caught shooting someone on film.
  • The strike ends after 13 months with an agreement between the union and management, but the moment comes across as anti-climactic in the final film. This is not helped by the post-script during the credits that mentions two more union strikes in the next two years!

Legacy 

  • Despite the moderate success of “Harlan County”, Barbara Kopple would not make another theatrical documentary for 14 years. 1990’s “American Dream” covers the 1985 Hormel strike that was ultimately unsuccessful for the workers. The film garnered Kopple her second Academy Award, making her the first (and so far only) woman to win Best Documentary twice.
  • The Duke Power strike was eventually dramatized into the 2000 Showtime movie “Harlan County War” starring Holly Hunter as a fictional composite of the various women who helped picket. The Boyle/Yablonski murder story became the 1986 HBO movie “Act of Vengeance” with Charles Bronson and Wilford Brimley.

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