I don’t know why I put off renting the Criterion DVD of Harlan County, U.S.A. for so long. All I was missing was a gripping, irresistible document of an Appalachian coal mining community’s more than year-long strike against Duke Power in the early 1970’s. Director Barbara Kopple took the time and care to immerse herself in the world of her film by living in the community for an extended period. Such an approach might well have risked putting the director “too close” to her subjects, but Kopple is not a journalist — she’s a filmmaker, a storyteller. Her empathy for the people of Harlan is exactly that, because she experienced these things with them. You could almost say that the film is simply one woman’s home movies from a period of 1973-74, and the woman in question just happens to be a professional filmmaker.
Kopple’s camera gets itself everywhere you would hope it could, such as inside families’ homes, union meetings, planning sessions by the miners’ wives (who show at least as much grit as the men), and Duke Power shareholder meetings. Her camera makes its way a mile underground into the mines themselves, and it is rolling on the picket lines when the strikebreaking gun thugs attack. Unforgettable characters emerge, and are underscored by the visceral honesty of the area’s indigenous bluegrass music sung by subjects of the film.
Parallels to recent West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 miners are, unsurprisingly, present in several instances. However, to evaluate Harlan County, U.S.A.‘s relevance in such simple, one-to-one correlative terms is to diminish the breadth of the film. As Harlan’s old timers recollect to the camera the dark days of the 1930’s, we see archival footage of mine explosions and violent labor clashes that earned the area (and later, that era) the moniker “Bloody Harlan.” All of this is to say nothing of the environmental efficacy of coal, the health effects of mining it on the miners and their families, the wage-earning stranglehold the power companies exert over the residents, and the lobbying stranglehold they exert over the relevant elected officials. Suffice it to say, plenty for a viewer to chew on.
Bottom line: Harlan County, U.S.A. is a passionately constructed and crafted piece of storytelling, made at no small personal risk. It richly deserved the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary that it won, and it is absolutely among the great documentaries of the last 50 years. See it.