One of the most enduring documentaries of the ’70s and a paradigm for activist nonfiction filmmaking, Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. is a fiery indictment of big business and an inspiring tribute to the resolve of working people. Kopple and her crew spent years gathering the footage from which this 103-minute feature was carefully assembled, and the time they invested is evident onscreen. The filmmakers were welcomed into the community of coalminers who toil in the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, so Kopple’s cameras captured every stage of a lengthy strike that erupted into violence. Overworked, underpaid, and subject to occupational hazards like black lung disease, the miners struck to improve their lot but were met with callous indifference from the Duke Power Company.
During the worst of the conflict, guns were openly displayed by both factions, so the climax of Kopple’s film is the community-wide reaction to the (offscreen) killing of a worker during a strike-related fight. The idea that a labor protest could lead to bloodshed in the supposedly civilized era of the mid-’70s speaks to Kopple’s prominent but understandable bias: Although Harlan County, U.S.A. is presented as straightforward reportage, lacking narration or other onscreen commentary from third parties, Kopple plainly uses the film to champion the oppressed workers she befriended. Driving this point home, the few Duke Power representatives who allow themselves to get captured on film come across as such heavy-handed thugs (or such unfeeling machines) that it’s impossible not to root for the impoverished, poorly educated locals kept under Duke Power’s collective thumb.
Furthermore, it’s impossible not to get roused by the rebel spirit of Kentuckians like the woman who proclaims, without any trace of hyperbole or irony, “If they shoot me, they can’t shoot the union outta me.” Especially in the context of side issues like the discovery of corruption among United Mine Workers of America, a heartbreaking subplot within Harlan County, U.S.A., it ultimately doesn’t matter whether Kopple’s movie is one-sided propaganda. The issues of right and wrong are so clearly drawn in the conflict Harlan County, U.S.A. captures that none could argue Kopple aligned herself with the wrong side. This is documentary filmmaking of the noblest kind, serious work made by people who want to change the world for the better.
Harlan County, U.S.A.: RIGHT ON