Harlan County U.S.A.
Directed by Barbara Kopple
Starring Norman Yarborough, Houston Elmore, Phil Sparks, Bessie Lou Cornett and Lois Scott
This film documents the coal miners' strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in June, 1973. Eastovers refusal to sign a contract (when the miners joined with the United Mine Workers of America) led to the strike, which lasted more than a year and included violent battles between gun-toting company thugs/scabs and the picketing miners and their supportive women-folk. Director Barbara Kopple puts the strike into perspective by giving us some background on the historical plight of the miners and some history of the UMWA.
See more films
★★★★★ review by Rembrandt Q Pumpernickel on Letterboxd
This is the summary for Harlan County U.S.A. on letterboxd: "A filmed account of a bitterly violent miner strike." I worry about writing about this film myself and whether or not I will just be elongating that concise but limiting sentence. Of maybe every movie I truly love, Harlan County U.S.A. is the one I may have the least words for. It is me. It is what my passion is. Film combined with social justice. How does one find the words to define one's self in such a way?
I'll start with the beauty of the film. It is musical. I have never seen a documentary or really any not avant-garde film that approaches tone poem status as much as Harlan County, USA. Somehow every line sounds like part of a larger song, whether sung or not. This film feels so woven together, a true tapestry of this life. I can hardly ever believe that it is a documentary; it's so well put together and gorgeous and terrifying to look at.
Sometimes when I think of what makes a good director, I ask myself do they make each face look unique? This may seem like an easy task to achieve as all faces are unique, but I rarely feel like directors manage to capture a face's unique character and, therefore, the person behind it. There are hundreds of faces in Harlan County U.S.A. yet Kopple captures each one magnificently, even those of the ostensible villains.
Anything I write will just feel inadequate, and I've already listened to this album twice trying to write this little bit. Everybody should see this film.
★★★★ review by Hollie Horror on Letterboxd
Now you must excuse me as I am going to be on a mission trying to find a compilation of old, American folk-strike music from Kentucky.
★★★★★ review by Timcop on Letterboxd
In the midst of our current political climate, one thread that HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A. beautifully illustrates over and over is the necessity of showing how the survival of one resistance movement must be mutually tied in solidarity to the prosperity of other resistance movements, as the unified power of the oppressors is thoroughly capable of afflicting multiple groups at once. A fight for economic equality does not work if it leaves out the fight for women's rights, a feminist movement doesn't survive without the inclusion of women of color, and so on. The miners of Harlan County are regularly supported, goaded, and more often than not even superseded by the women of Harlan County, whose unshakeable faith in the union and in the political will of the people is sometimes the only thing keeping the strike afloat. The women of Harlan also come to the aid and defense of several of the African-American miners after the scabs and company thugs hurl racial epithets and flash weapons to intimidate. A necessary and vital showing of solidarity amidst across-the-board intimidation and violence. Some stay observations: the miners finding almost more common ground with New Yorkers than with the law enforcement in their own hometown; Lois Scott, an honest-to-God American hero, fearlessly standing up to the sheriff, the revolting strikebreaker Basil Collins, and practically everyone else in town in support of the miners; the impossibly harsh and unforgiving nature of coalmining, a job that almost none of the miners seem to enjoy or take pride in, but do it completely out of necessity for the complete benefit of other people, a travesty of so-called American progress.
★★★½ review by TajLV on Letterboxd
Film #7 among my 52 Films by Women 2016
In documenting the 13-month Brookside Mine workers' strike of the 1970s, director Barbara Kopple helped pave the way for a new perspective in nonfiction cinema. She demonstrated that a documentary filmmaker could go beyond disassociated observation and take a side in a social issue. And in doing so, she creates not only a movie with a powerful message, but also one that achieved mainstream distribution by virtue of its broad appeal.
The primary conflict here is between the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and Duke Power Company, which owned the Eastover Coal Company's Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County, southeast Kentucky. In 1973, the local miners voted to organize under the UMWA, but Duke/Eastover refused to sign a contract with them. The fledgling union members at Brookside went on strike in protest, joined by their brethren at the nearby Highsplit Mine.
The company's reaction was to ignore the employees' demands. They hired replacement workers -- so-called "scabs" -- to cross picket lines and keep the mines producing. When the strikers tried to block them, the employers brought in "gun thugs" to escort the scabs to the worksites. That led verbal confrontations, then shoving matches and eventually gunfire. And when the wives of the union men took to the picket lines, it only got uglier until a young man was murdered, leaving behind a 16-year-old wife and 5-month-old baby.
Kopple won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1977, and her film was granted a listing on the National Film Registry in 1990. She uses archival footage from the 1930s, when Harlan County was the scene of a similar bloody confrontation between miners and mine operators, plus folk songs representative of the coal miners' woes, from systemic poverty and back-breaking long hours to black lung disease.
As much as I could empathize with the plight of the workers, I couldn't rate this film higher than 3.5 stars. I'm an activist for Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal Campaign" and an advocate for keeping fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change caused by carbon pollutants. Transitioning the nation's coal workers to clean energy jobs cannot be done overnight, I know, but I feel we are making progress each time a coal-fired power plant is shuttered or a coal mine is closed. So it was hard for me to cheer the miners' small victories; they are part of the environmental problem, not the solution.
★★★★★ review by Rick Burin on Letterboxd
Documentary maker Barbara Kopple lived with coal miners’ families for a year in order to make this startling, far-reaching film, which uses a desperate localised strike – called by workers seeking union recognition – to examine the way America treats its poor. Alongside vivid footage of a conflict spiralling out of control, she examines corruption and compromise within the union, the duplicity and heartlessness of the coal companies, and the impossible odds stacked against the workers, in the shape of a police force, legislature and judiciary all conspiring to keep them under foot.
Impassioned, committed but also willing to acknowledge the complexities of the situation and the personal shortcomings of some campaigners, it’s ultimately a valuable, inspiring and upsetting film, a hymn to the virtues of authentic unionisation, when America still had such a thing. For an outside observer, it also highlights just how damaging US firearms laws are in a situation like this, making the escalation from placid to dangerous all the steeper – and infinitely more destructive. And Kooper soundtracks the whole thing with a succession of beguiling, soot-choked renditions of bluegrass songs about mining, some done professionally, others sung with an overpowering intensity by minor players in the film.
- See all reviews