Harlan County USA
Dir. Barbara Kopple, U.S., 1976

by Nicolas Rapold

Harlan County USA, now available from Criterion, is not newly relevant because this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Academy Award–winning strike documentary, or because of the recent Sago mining disaster and May’s plus-ça-change tunnel explosion in Harlan County, or because it’s just been inducted into something called the “Sundance Collection” (alongside 54...). No, it’s not “relevant” at all—how could such a soul-killing journalistic-anemic word apply? Harlan County USA is primary and essential.

Initially about reform rumblings in the United Mining Workers of America, Barbara Kopple’s vérité documentary lives and breathes within the 1973 strike by Harlan County coal diggers and their wives against Duke Power, owner of Brookside Mine. The fortuitous confluence of revolution and filmmaking yields one of the cinema’s most inspiring portraits of courage, in or out of fiction—collectively, in the community’s steadfastness against half-wage poverty, gun thugs, and a double-talking company, and individually, in heroes (and unforgettable personalities) like Lois Scott, a model for jaw-dropping fearlessness and passionate engagement whose spitfire tirades could launch a thousand walkouts. Talk of courage, something one encounters constantly in rhetoric and rarely in reality, can raise bored suspicion, but you see the real thing here, in the flesh: a line of strikers standing ground against good ol’ boys, paid to beat the shit out of them, as they reach for their guns. Harlan County shows many stand-offs like this, along with spirited union- and miner’s- wives meetings where hope, despair, and strategy are aired. And victory does ultimately come only at the price of blood—a thug’s shotgun blast to the face of one miner as he sat with friends by a creek is the unspinnable butchery that spurs Duke into a contract.

Getting one’s due: a reasonable demand, but as Harlan County shows, intertwining strike coverage with archival footage and recent union history, never one much respected by the men in suits, even on union side. Black-and-white newsreels from 1930s struggles (whose wiry veterans crop up here and there) are folded into the film along with the story of pandering UMWA leader Tony Boyle’s ordered hit on reformer Jock Yablonsky. Kopple’s vigorous, intuitively fluid, observant film is nothing without her head editor: Nancy Baker, who would go on to sort out Streetwise, Vanya on 42nd Street, and a more recent award-winner, Born Into Brothels (aided by assistants like Mary Lampson, who would help shape the four-hour A Lion in the House).

The way Baker and Kopple step backwards a few years to fill in the Boyle-Yablonsky background is a virtuoso performance worth examining. The extended sequence occurs some time after the movie’s Altonian introductory overture of the miners in their element, crouching in letterbox tunnels and limned by light and dust (the first shot is an invocation by a silhouetted miner: “Fire in’hooole!”—the blast warning). These first scenes appear to occur at the time of the strike: an early standoff after a funereal column of police cars rolls up to the picket lines, a strike meeting, and, after some months later women passively resist, being dragged away. Some immediate legal consequences follow, miners get jailed; one woman, Bessie Parker (Lois’s daughter, equally savvy, yet tempered), gives a moving court speech about having done what was right. There’s a Duke Power press conference and then Kopple shifts the setting to the miners’ Wall Street trip, with a hilarious but affecting dialogue between a picketing miner and a union-cushioned cop (“What about insurance? You got about dental?” he asks). At Wall Street they protest at the shareholders meeting, and this shift to the corporate and administrative lets Kopple throw up statistics comparing profit gains (170%) with wage increases (4%). Bureaucracy follows (a government mine inspector admitting poor safety records), and then, after all the businessmen and the bureaucrats, explosions fill the screen: the 1968 Mannington mining disaster. Widows speak and (after a digression on black lung) the perfect cut arrives: after one woman spits out criticism in disgust, we see Tony Boyle mid-speech mimicking his critics—“Boyle’s doing nothing for the widows...” Then, concisely: the Yablonski murder, Boyle’s electoral defeat to rank-and-filer Arnold Miller, and Boyle’s being charged with ordering the hit. Next caption, after this seamlessly introduced historical backlighting: the 10th month of the strike begins. It’s only at this point that one realizes we’ve gone back in time and then returned to the time of the strike, so elegantly have Kopple and Baker created the strike as an event happening on more levels than just the present moment, but instead a nexus of emotions, history, and imagery of struggles telescoped from past through present.

There’s a great deal of such unseen-hand labor going on to make Harlan County USA the experience that it is, ever surging forward, and yet ever from the heart of the workers. And as evidenced from the commentary and DVD extras, Kopple has the persuasive and adaptive skills of any good director—we come to understand the constant machinations around reality’s strictures and society’s rules that are required to capture that reality. Kopple and crew were always wresting images from chaos, the most dangerous being the thugs’ nighttime assault and a gun standoff between miners and thugs: sometimes they filmed without loaded cameras, simply to make violence less likely, betting correctly that no one wanted to kill on camera. And there are accounts of simple trickery: the courtroom scene was captured with a wire mic and a camera angle stolen from a crack in the back doors. She also talks her way past Basil Johnson, the reptilian head strikebreaker and the movie’s great villain, who, sitting in his pickup, asks for her ID: she can’t find it, but what about his then? Neither can he, and so Kopple replies that, well, she thinks she must have mislaid hers, too... (Talk about offscreen space: one of the extras explains that, out of frame, Basil was twirling a gun on the seat next to him for her to see.)

Kopple wisely makes local music central to her movie, using traditional mining songs in segues, and showing some impromptu performances. For the funerals in the film, the singing is key: instead of being a silent observer at such fraught events, Kopple lets her images illustrate the keening vocals. In a way it’s a replacement of classic documentary’s “Voice of God” with a new voice: the voice of community, in the song they themselves have produced. Since Kopple is so entwined in the events she films, it’s a crucial move to tilt the balance of the narrative standpoint towards those being depicted.

As Paul Arthur notes in the essay accompanying this Criterion edition, unused portions of the film were “used as organizing and fund-raising tools.” One could imagine this DVD being used the same way. The film’s conclusion refuses to rest on the laurels of the contract acceptance; instead, it is clear that the struggles continue, and would continue. This is a movie that even in its time looked forward, partly from reflecting on the 1930s: there’s always work to be done.