Harlan County, U.S.A.

Harlan County, U.S.A. is director Barbara Kopple’s film about the 1973 coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Ky. that won a Best Documentary Oscar and was selected for the National Film Registry. Highlighting the struggles of families living in shacks with no indoor plumbing and enduring hazardous working conditions, the film details the conflict between the Eastover Mining Co. and the laborers determined to join the United Mine Workers of America. This is a fantastic piece of work which details the struggles of a forgotten culture that lives and dies to supply America with much of its electric power. Definitely a film everyone should see, as it shows a side of America that many people don’t know much about. The working conditions for the coal miners were terrible, with some tunnels only 42 inches high and filled with coal dust. The undercurrent of poverty is crushing. Eye-popping expose on the hardships and dangers of deep mining and the exploitive policies of mining companies.  Amazing cinematography. The film crew, working for over a year, was able to capture stark images of miners covered in coal dust, miners suffering the diseases that come with coal mining, scenes of violence that are shocking in their reality and nearness, and the overall spirit of the town.  The company hired armed escorts for the scab strike breakers, and those armed men shot at picketing miners and the miners’ homes. “All of our lives we’ve been kicked around, we’ve been put in jail, we’ve been shot at, we’ve had dynamite thrown at us, and then you don’t want us to have nothin’.  Well I’ll tell you Mr. Horn, I’m gonna be standin’ up there on that picket line lookin’ at you for as long as it takes.” So says one of the 180 coal miners. The filmmaker and crew were also attacked while filming.  This film shows serious standoffs that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Wayne Western. There is so much tension and action here, I felt like I was watching a Hollywood production than an actual documentary. The blend of documentary and real life drama is perfect; truly a rare gem. This is an important story for many reasons. Yes, it’s very much a political film, and it’s very much about unions, but it goes far beyond that. The humanity (warts and all), courage and dignity of these miners and their families is shown as they struggle against well-funded powerful forces in a fight for the kind of living wages, safe working conditions and professional respect that many of us take for granted.  This extremely powerful and moving film hit home for me – literally. I grew up in Harlan County, KY, and my dad was a coal miner for 25 years until the coal industry declined and his mine shut down. I lived on strike pay for a while as a child, and good or bad the union gave people hope and a little more than they had. Coal mining is about politics, big money, and dirt – not only the kind men come out the ground covered in, but back-room deals, corporate greed, and human life made cheap by mine operators who don’t care whether you live or die. However, occasionally you have a group of courageous people who stand up and say, ‘Not us, not anymore!’  These coal miners strike against the company that exploits them, and the union that doesn’t always represent their interests. The strong-arm tactics of the Eastover Mine Company are often reprehensible and at times criminal.  In 1976 this was a ground-breaking film that deserved and won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Today it is still relevant. The sad thing is mining has not become much better today. Many of the issues have changed, but the exploitation of coal miners, the corruption of the union, and the dangerous nature of the work have remained horrifyingly similar, as recent mine accidents attest. There are still so many unsafe conditions that get overlooked due to payoffs. It is amazing what workers have to go through to just make enough to survive in this country, and, don’t forget, 1973 was near the top peak of union participation in America, so, don’t expect today’s realty to be any better. Everyone in Harlan County is telling this important story: the determined miners and the women in their lives are strong and courageous — their devoted and passionate wives, mothers, and daughters.  To help their men these courageous women form their own picket line and face down the company gun thugs.  The interviews with many of the miners and company executives tell this story without the voice-over narration that we hear in many of today’s documentaries like Michael Moore’s, in which the documentarian is a central character in the film. I think one of the most authentic elements of the film is the soundtrack, which is comprised of union songs sung by the strikers themselves and the haunting voices of the Harlan County women.  Overall, this documentary is wonderful in its ability to immerse the audience in the feeling, look, and culture of Harlan County.  The director of this film, Barbara Kopple, was young and broke when she made this film with a crew of only three — so broke in fact that at one point her electricity was shut off, and they sometimes could not afford to buy 16mm film stock. It was made over thirty years ago — decades before cheap digital cameras, laptops, and digital editing equipment. Kopple did what she could with the tools and resources she had at hand, and what she did is amazing. It’s true that there are some scenes where you cannot hear clearly what people are saying, and it’s also true that not everything is framed perfectly.  So what?  The film quality is very raw, but that’s what makes this movie even more of a gem. I never noticed anything to do with the quality of this documentary, because Barbara brings you right inside these people’s struggle. It took time and great dedication to make this film — she lived with these miners for two years. This is one of the very best films — documentary or otherwise — that I have ever seen. Highly recommended.  Well worth watching.  Anyone who thinks that unions are not necessary needs to see this movie. The unions were the best thing to happen to the American worker, but sadly they are vanishing from power. Today the UMWA is just a shell of its former self, and today’s miners are too scared and gutless to stand up to the company. If everyone stands together they can get things done, but you always have the scab strike breakers that ruin it for the workers. Men shed blood for this union, only to watch the young miners of today destroy everything they worked for. Heck, half of the miners today have no idea what happened to pave the way for them. Sad state of affairs. Vote Union and for people who support workers’ rights.  The film documents how a union’s rank and file must maintain a watchful eye on its leadership to prevent the leadership joining with employers to take advantage of them.  This is a very good documentary on what and how big business will do to the people they can and will exploit.  It centers on why America and the working man worldwide will always need to have the strength of Unions to make them strong enough to deal with corporate greed. I feel that this should be required viewing in high school as part of the history of the labor movement in this country — and where we would be without it.  This film does justice to the men and women who have helped each of us to have basic rights like the 8-hour work day. But we mustn’t let down our guard — workers must remain united because we are up against more powerful forces than ever these days.  Anyone who wonders if labor unions are still needed in the United States should watch this film as a reminder that oppression and social injustice are still part of the “land of the free.” It’s sad today to see how the non-union companies like Massey coal rule with an iron fist.  This is a story told many times the world over about corporations beholden to their shareholders who make the conscious decision to sacrifice human welfare and life for profit. Corporations own entire media empires (Fox, anyone?) that convince ordinary Americans to vote against their best interests. Sad state today where the people are so influenced by the media, especially Fox news, and thus are slowly being brainwashed to just give away their rights. When you hear the cry ‘Less Government!’ you can bet the corporations are smiling. Less government does not mean more freedom; it means more power to corporations, more money for billionaires like the Koch Brothers–oil and chemical moguls who finance the Tea Party and other conservative movements for their own benefit, not that of the common man.  “Which side are you are, boys?”  The world these miners live in resembles something out of a third world nation.  This film shows you how hard working conditions were in the South just 40 years ago, and makes you think about what the working class is now going through in countries such as China, Sri Lanka, and India. The old language of industrialists against the working class was much more effective in an era where oil/coal companies were making record profits and paying poverty-level wages. Strike-breakers who used guns were common. I watched this movie way back when it first came out, and it actually seems to have gotten better with time. Well worth watching if for nothing more than a window to the American mining subculture, but also an uplifting David vs. Goliath story. Really great!  Human beings fighting desperately for a living wage, a decent standard of living for their families, and their own dignity. This is one film not to be missed.  This is one of the most important movies ever made and one of the best documentaries that you will ever see.  It asks of you, “Whose side are you on?” Upon viewing it, the answer shouldn’t be a difficult one at all. Documentary 1976 PG 103 minutes.

 

SEE ALSO:

The Last Mountain

GasLand

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