CLASSIC DOCS MARATHON: ‘Harlan County, USA’ (1976)

It’s perhaps by nature of the art itself that nonfiction filmmaking is the chosen craft of so many advocates. After all, the camera can be an indispensable tool when trying to prove a point, and uniquely unforgiving in how it can make the other side look heartless, inept or downright evil. Just as important as the camera, the editing stage is critical in trimming the glut from months or even years of recorded footage, able to propagate a viewpoint with added context and urgency. Our first “advocacy” documentary in this marathon, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA is a classic of the genre for good reason. Not only is the Oscar-winning film a tremendously compelling account of the years-long strike of 180 Brookside coal miners against Duke Power Company; it is also a truly outrageous and outrage-inspiring portrait of a broken system farcically intended to promote working-class welfare. It is a film – especially considering the workers’ strikes of recent memory in Wisconsin – whose potency and sense of righteousness endure.

It is conventional wisdom that Kopple had originally meant with this project to document the attempt to supplant United Mine Workers of America president Tony Boyle, a union boss famous for orchestrating fraudulent elections and other shady dealings (including the murder of his opponent Joseph Yablonski in 1969). When a small group of coal mine workers in Harlan County, Kentucky assembled in 1973 to protest – in concurrence with numerous other safety and health concerns – the “no-strike” provision in their Duke Power contract, Kopple opted to film their plight instead.

Kopple spent years collecting footage of the Brookside Strikers’ collective efforts, chronicling them as they picket both at home and at Duke’s NYC-based headquarters. Additionally, the workers peacefully engage “scab” workers and deeply complacent law enforcement officials. The entire Harlan County community helps orchestrate the strike with surprising solidarity and single-mindedness. In some of the film’s more fascinating scenes, we see the women in the community doing their part in the battle for their husbands’ and sons’ betterment, with commendable enthusiasm and gumption. The wives regularly meet to determine next steps, and even orchestrate assemblies of their own, both to protests the scabs taking their families’ jobs and to light a fire under the county sheriff who, in the name of “neutrality,” fails to provide satisfactory protection for the picketing men.

Things come to a head when the miners’ protests begin drawing the ire and the firepower – both figurative and literal – from anonymous assailants. The protests that take place begin to grow violent, and Kopple puts herself in harm’s way to catch it all on film. Her footage in these moments is nothing short of remarkable, particularly when a corporate goon strong-arms her and her camera operator to the ground. We later learn that one of the workers, a well-liked young man, sustains a shot in the head during the scuffle. He unfortunately does not survive, leaving behind an infant child and a teenaged widow. In being lucky enough to catch this assault on-camera, the viewer gains a practically first-hand experience of the violence being committed against the protesters. In fiction films, power and meaning is often found in how the camera composes and frames its imagery. To be able to capture spontaneous yet damning moments like these, as horrifying as it  can surely be, is to see how the documentary draws power from its imagery.

With Harlan County, USA, Kopple takes an interesting narrative risk in two respects. First, in making the effort to include perspectives and accounts from dozens of members of the Harlan County community, there is not really one sole personality or individual subject to lead us through the workers’ struggle. This is a marked difference from what we saw in Nanook of the North and Grey Gardens, which are decidedly more focused on a clear-cut individual. Typically, the lack of a protagonist does not have to be a problem in a documentary; as we will soon see in our Marathon’s Michael Moore film, the filmmaker(s) can always put themselves into the center of the story either through narration or by making their presence known onscreen. Kopple chooses not take this shortcut either; the closest thing we gat to narration are a few informational screen captions and synopses, and Kopple’s voice is sparsely heard. When she does speak, it is off-camera, typically to ask a question or to give context to a curt answer supplied by the occasional interviewee.

It therefore becomes the thesis of Kopple’s movie that becomes the subject of Harlan County, USA. The common denominator of all the people documented in this movie is the collective belief that this community of blue-collar workers deserves far better than they are asked to contend with. That righteous and unified drive – a sentiment held by practically every personality depicted (sympathetically) onscreen – promulgates the notion that it is the workers’ populist ambition for collective equity that is the film’s main subject. Like the strike of the Brookside miners and their families, Harlan County, USA is not about the needs of the individual, but the needs of the masses.

The main argument from Harlan County, USA’s possible detractors, particularly those who disagree with the movie’s message or bear an obtuse opinion of how even-keeled a political documentary ought to be, might understandably fault the film for its one-sidedness. I say this is “understandable” because the movie quite unapologetically grants sole perspective to the Brookside coal miners. What’s more, few if any representatives for Duke Power or the corrupt UMWA leadership are given a chance to speak to Kopple. Admittedly, it might have been interesting if the film Kopple made had been a grander think-piece on the corrupt battle of corporate/union leadership greed versus the bests interests of the common worker. But that is simply not the movie she seems interested in making. Fairness to the other side is not a priority for Kopple, especially considering the undeniable lack of justice being granted to the poor Harlan community. The fallacious assertion that “for every argument to be made, there is an equally valid counter-argument” is one she does not believe.

Harlan County, USA is the work of an advocate, not a polemicist. So instead of interviewing the bullies at Duke Energy, instead of engaging the enactors of violence against peaceful protestors, Barbara Kopple talks to workers whose lungs have been irrevocably destroyed. She talks to men and women who begin carrying guns in response to a very real need for protection. And she captures gut-wrenching footage of a frail old woman, sobbing uncontrollably over the casket of her senselessly murdered son, a young man who died fighting for his community’s well-being. For an “issues” documentary, hers may not be the most fair approach, but she insists it is the most just approach. For a lover of documentaries, it is also likely the most captivating.

Bottom Line: Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA pushes our Classic Docs Marathon right in to the dicey realm of advocacy filmmaking with deeply affecting results.

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