Finishing Blindspot 2016 #8: Harlan County USA
Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
The place is southeastern Kentucky, bordering Virginia. The time is the early ’70s, an era when there was turmoil to spare in the United States. The story is simultaneously specific and one that has been told time and time again. Since there was wealth to be had and labor to take advantage of it, the rich have exploited the poor. In Harlan County, USA, the poor are coal miners hoping to unionize, while the executives of the mining company they work for are willing to resort to increasingly brazen violence to stop them.
Barbara Kopple was just 27 years old when she lead her camera crew to Kentucky to cover the strike by miners at Brookside Mine, who were hoping for better wages, safer conditions, and benefits. They sign a contract to join the United Mine Workers of America. The Duke Power Company, which owns the mine, nixes the contract, triggering the strike.
Simply as an account of the chaotic events of the strike, Harlan County, USA is electric. Some of the footage Kopple gets is astonishing. The cameras sometimes pick up shouted threats from armed mercenaries and police, ordering her to stop filming. The methods used by strikebreakers, hired by Duke to manhandle the picketers and shuttle scab workers into the mines, grow increasingly violent. Kopple doesn’t provide a lot of names, but we grow accustomed to and even attached to a lot of faces. The wives and mothers of the miners are the primary force of the picket lines, defiantly standing up to guards who start by dragging them out of the lines and into jail cells into the dark, escalating to gunfire.
Kopple makes no attempt to remain detached. This is full-throated activist filmmaking, but unlike the work of Michael Moore, which can often turn into overwrought and didactic, Kopple keeps the cameras swiveling around, documenting whatever they can. One remarkable shot captures an infamous strikebreaker pointing his gun at the crowd. The shot ends up being evidence that forces the county sheriff to arrest the man, something he clearly has no desire to do.
Harlan County, USA is a reminder that progress has only ever been achieved through relentless effort, often in the face of seemingly overwhelming force and institutions uninterested in holding the powerful accountable. At one point, a miner at a demonstration in New York City (where they hope to tank Duke Power Company’s stock value) has a conversation with a cop, who is aghast at the conditions the miners face. The cop’s basic benefits and wages are modest, basic but compared to the miner, it sounds like a bounty.
The films ends with a mix of sadness, hope, and ambiguity. The miners get a contract, but only after one of the strikers is murdered on the picket line. They’re pleased, but one of the older miners point out that it doesn’t help those whose careers don’t have much time left to reap the benefits. And within a year, another conflict arises, putting the contract in jeopardy. The fight continues on, as it always has, as it always will.