January 13, 2020

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Barbara Kopple
Stars: Basil Collins, W.A. Boyle, Norman Yarborough

What it's about. Young filmmaker Barbara Kopple takes her camera and crew to rural West Virginia, where she documents a miners strike against Duke Power. The miners want to join the United Mine Workers, while the mine company is opposed to any union contract.

The company hires "scab" workers to continue operations during the strike. The scabs are led by despised mine foreman Basil Collins. The striking workers and their wives attempt to block the road to the mines, keeping the scabs from working. The local sheriff supports the coal company over the miners. Tensions escalate into violence, and a striker is killed.

A secondary subplot is the United Mine Workers election of 1972. Corrupt incumbent Tony Boyle, who was later imprisoned for election fraud and the murder of political opponent Jock Yablonski, faces reformer Arnold Miller.

Director Kopple makes no disguise of her sympathy for the miners and their wives. The miners endure a hard life that can include black lung and cave-ins in addition to lifelong poverty.

How others will see it. Harlan County U.S.A. was filmed over several years. Box office was minimal, but the documentary drew notice on its tour of film festivals. It was named as a Top Ten Film by the National Board of Review, and won Best Documentary at the prestigious Academy Awards.

Today at imdb.com, Harlan County U.S.A. has a respectable 4500 user votes and a lofty user rating of 8.2 out of 10. Women over 45, the most reliable demographic, grade it even higher at 8.5. As one might expect, the user reviews lavish praise upon the commitment of Kopple and her crew to spend years with the wives of the mine workers, gaining their trust and filming their determination to defeat the cruelty of the coal company.

How I felt about it. In 1976, it was not a novelty for a documentary filmmaker to favor the liberal side of a class conflict. There was, for example, Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame (1960), which depicted the exploitation of migrant farm workers. But it would take a hardened capitalist to side with Duke Power executives over the miners, who live in towns with dirt roads and in homes without running water.

We see elderly miners who can't afford to retire. We see aged miners with black lung gasping for breath. We see men emerging from the mines with blackened faces. And we see what the miners are up against as they try to unionize: the company refuses to negotiate and instead hires "scabs." Law enforcement takes the side of the coal company.

Injustice is a powerful cinematic theme, especially when the audience has sympathy with the oppressed. It helps to have a villain, personified here by Basil Collins, whose job is to usher the "scabs" to the mines, even if brute force is required.

Folk singer/songwriter Hazel Dickens, whose brothers worked in the mines, became famous as a result of the present film. She appeared in 1983 and 2002 documentaries, and as a singer in Matewan and Songcatcher. She died in 2011.

Dickens is not to be confused with Florence Reece, whose performance of "Which Side Are You On" at a union meeting is arguably the highlight of the film. The potent pro-labor folk ballad has become a standard, and has appeared in numerous film soundtracks.