|Harlan County, USA|
|Directed by||Barbara Kopple|
|Produced by||Barbara Kopple|
|Music by||Hazel Dickens|
|Edited by||Nancy Baker|
|Distributed by||Cinema 5|
Harlan County, USA is a 1976 American documentary film covering the "Brookside Strike" a 1973 effort of 180 coal miners and their wives against the Duke Power Company-owned Eastover Coal Company's Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County, southeast Kentucky. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary at the 49th Academy Awards.
It was directed and produced by filmmaker Barbara Kopple, then early in her filmmaking career. A former VISTA volunteer, she had worked on other documentaries, especially as an advocate of workers' rights.
Kopple initially intended to make a film about Kenzie, Miners for Democracy and the attempt to unseat Tony Boyle as president of the UMWA. When miners at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, went on strike against Duke Power Company in June 1973, Kopple went there to film the strike, which the UMWA had helped to organize. She decided it was the more compelling subject, so switched the focus of her film. In all, she worked on the film for four years, including preparation and editing.
When Kopple and her cameraman Hart Perry showed up on the picket line, local people did not know what she was doing and were suspicious of their intentions. Rumors flew that a "hippie crew from New York" was sniffing around the strike. Which side were they on? Kopple soon asked a striker, "Why are you telling people not to talk to me?" "Girl", she was told, "you gotta tell people here what you're doin'."
Kopple and her crew spent years with the families depicted in the film, documenting the dire straits they encountered while striking for safer working conditions, fair labor practices, and decent wages. She followed them to picket in front of the Stock Exchange in New York City, filming interviews with people affected by black lung disease, and miners being shot at while striking.
The company insisted on having a no-strike clause in the proposed new contract. The miners were concerned that accepting such a provision would limit their ability to influence local working conditions. This sticking point became moot when, a few years after the strike, the UMWA folded the agreement won by this group of workers into a global contract.
Rather than using narration to tell the story, Kopple chose to film the words and actions of the people themselves. For example, when the strike breakers and others hired by the company show up early in the film—the strikers call them "gun thugs"—the company people tried to keep their guns hidden from the camera. As the strike dragged on for nearly a year, both sides eventually openly brandished their weapons. Kopple felt it was important to continue filming (or pretend to, even when they were out of film) because the presence of the crew and staff support seemed to help keep the violence down.
Kopple did provide facts and statistics about the companies and the workers. She notes that Duke Power Company's profits increased 170 percent in a single year. Meanwhile, the striking miners, many of whom are living in squalid conditions without utilities or running water, were offered a 4% pay increase, at a time when the estimated cost of living increase was 7% for that same year.
Joseph Yablonski was a passionate, populistic union representative who was loved by many of the miners. Yablonski had challenged W.A. "Tony" Boyle for the presidency of the UMWA in 1969, but lost in an election widely viewed as corrupt. Later that year, Yablonski and his family were found murdered in their home. Early in the film Boyle is shown in good health. Later, after he was convicted of giving $20,000 to another union executive council member to hire the killers of Yablonski and his wife, Boyle appears frail, sickly and using a wheelchair; he was carried up the courthouse steps to face sentencing.
Almost a full year into the strike, miner Lawrence Jones was fatally shot during a scuffle. Jones was well liked, young, and had a 16-year-old wife, and a baby. In the documentary, his mother can be seen breaking down during his funeral, screaming and being carried away by male attendees. The strikers and management finally agreed to come to the bargaining table after his death.
Lois Scott, a leading woman in the mining community, is shown playing a major role in galvanizing the people in support of the strike. Several times she is seen publicly chastising those she feels have been absent from the picket lines. In one scene, Scott pulls a pistol from her bra.
The music used in Harlan County, USA was considered integral to conveying the culture of the miners. It reflected the culture of the people of Harlan County and showed the power of folk music that was a living part of their culture. Their stories were often told through the songs.
The music used in the film:
Gary Arnold of the Washington Post praised the film, saying that Kopple "has emerged with a stirring, revealing testament to the courage, tenacity and dignity of Appalachian men and women whose livelihood depends on coal mining. At their best Kopple and photographer Hart Perry bear unassuming, expressive witness to the experiences, aspirations and abiding grievances of the Brookside miners and their wives, who organized auxiliary strike actions."
When the film was re-released in 2006, critic Roger Ebert praised the film, writing "The film retains all of its power, in the story of a miners' strike in Kentucky where the company employed armed goons to escort scabs into the mines, and the most effective picketers were the miners' wives -- articulate, indomitable, courageous. It contains a famous scene where guns are fired at the strikers in the darkness before dawn, and Kopple and her cameraman are knocked down and beaten."
Film critic Dennis Schwartz liked the documentary, yet found flaw in it providing only one point of view. He described the film as "One of the better and more rousing labor strike films that calls attention to class war in America, though it doesn't offer enough analysis or balance on the issues (it sees the struggle solely through the miners' eyes)...The film does a good job chronicling the plight of the miners and telling their personal stories in a moving way, and the meaningful catchy coal mining songs add to the emotional impact of the historical event. Hazel Dickens's folk song lyrics of 'United we stand, divided we fall' and Florence Reece's lyrics for "Which Side Are You On?" give one the full-flavor of the miners' mood and the union fervor sweeping the mining community in the black mountains of Appalachia."
The film received a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the aggregator site.
Harlan County, USA was preserved by the Academy Film Archive, in conjunction with New York Women in Film & Television, in 2004.
In the film's 2004 Criterion Collection special feature, The Making of Harlan County, USA, associate director Anne Lewis compares Scott to Women's Liberation activists. Jerry Johnson, one of the striking Eastover miners, attributes the conclusion of the strike to the presence of Kopple and her film crew: "The cameras probably saved a bunch of shooting. I don't think we'd have won it without the film crew. If the film crew hadn't been sympathetic to our cause, we would've lost. Thank God for them; thank God they're on our side."
In a 2015 interview with Variety, Kopple was asked if she was in danger while working on this film. She reveals that the head scab, Basil Collins, wanted to hire someone to shoot her; however, the most dangerous incidents were the acts of violence by the mine owners against the miners. She said that the mine owners would hire "local prisoners to beat people up, [shoot] at houses. The people had to line their walls with mattresses."