Dir: Barbara Kopple (American Dream; Wild Man Blues; Woodstock '94)
Some time ago, ten years or more it must have been, this documentary changed my life. I only saw it once, on TCM during 31 Days of Oscar. But it has now been released by Criterion. Upon further review, all of the dynamics that shaped my entire worldview, how I saw art, culture, politics, the human condition, all are still there. It is still one of the best movie experiences I have ever had, still hands down the greatest documentary I have ever seen, still a window into a different universe right in my own backyard.
Harlan County, U.S.A. chronicles a coal mining stike in Eastern Kentucky and the patriots who put their lives on the line for their neighbors and their families. Duke Power Company (still around) and the corrupt United Mine Workers had colluded to keep working conditions, pay, and labor practices 50 years behind most other industries in the country. Kopple was originally making a film about the UMW elections, and she was going to spend only a day at an under the radar strike in Harlan. Instead, she stayed for year among the some truly remarkable people.
The movie strikes me for many reasons. Most of my contemporary experiences with unions were ridiculous ones; baseball players, umpires, airline pilots, etc. While each may have had theoretical issues, they were hardly striking for bread or for sufficient health care when their job gives them lung disease. Even workers like the air traffic controllers, UPS drivers, mass transit workers in Philly and NYC, are striking over things that these folks in Harlan could not even drem existed. Folks in Harlan wanted running water. This movie made me realize what it was all over the place before organized labor. It reoriented my politics on this important issue.
The film also reversed my thinking on mountain folk. And trust me, these people fit to tee every stereotype you have of Kentucky coal miners. Thick accents, living in shacks, no teeth, toting guns, washing babies in iron tubs, the fodder of constant jokes and snickers from suburban people like myself. But unlike almost any other film I have seen, Kopple exposes the qualities in these people that makes them beautiful. Their strength in the face of challenges that I would wilt under, their conviction in family and history of self reliance, their recognition that no one cares for them and they have to look out for themselves. The women in particular dominate the film. The miners are under a court injunction not to picket, but the wives were not. Throughout the film, it is they who are the catalysts for change, they who escalate the tactics in the face of the gun thugs, they who make it possible for the men to risk their lives. Kopple uses almost no narration; these women tell the story for us.
This film was also my first serious exposure to bluegrass and coal mining music. Kopple captures authentic songs from the oral culture of the miners, toothless men and women who chant out the stories of years ago in raspy wails. Think Ralph Stanley's "O Death" here. That song is sung in this film by Hazel Dickinson, then a largely unknown traditional music singer with a voice that will send a chill through you. This movie propelled her to as much stardom as a woman who sings about labor movements a capella could get, I guess. It was Hazel that lead me to explore country roots music, a journey that I continue decades later.
95% of a good documentary is being in the right place at the right time. Kopple has provided a number of unforgettable images, as for some reason both sides in this dispute forget or ignore the presence of her camea. When the thugs show up with guns and clubs, we are there. When the sherriff refuses to do his duty, we get the whole conversation. When miners die in the struggle, we see their brains on the ground. It is moving, powerful, unbelievable, and transcendent.