Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
  • 4760
  • PG
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Release year: 1976 ()
  • Running time: 103 min
  • Original Title: Harlan County U.S.A.
  • Voted: 4760

This film documents the coal miners' strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in June, 1973. Eastovers refusal to sign a contract (when the miners joined with the United Mine Workers of America) led to the strike, which lasted more than a year and included violent battles between gun-toting company thugs/scabs and the picketing miners and their supportive women-folk. Director Barbara Kopple puts the strike into perspective by giving us some background on the historical plight of the miners and some history of the UMWA.

  • 'There's blood upon your contract like vinegar in your wine... by 7

    ...'cause there's one man dead on the Harlan County line'.

    This is a powerful Oscar-winning documentary produced and directed by Barbara Kopple ('American Dream', 'Wild Man Blues'). It focuses on the men at the Brookside Mine in Harlan, Kentucky who, in the summer of 1973, voted to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Duke Power Company and its subsidiary, Eastover Mining Company, refused to sign the contract. The miners came out on a long strike, registered by Kopple with testimonies, backstories, archival footage, and music, particularly that of Hazel Dickens during the final credits.

    The film's main strength resides in the sincerity of its emotional, political and sociological core without being overtly sentimental, and Kopple's way of testifying instead of exploiting the subjects. The miners and their wives are not depicted in old hillbilly stereotypes, but rather as hard-working human beings fighting for their basic rights ('together we stand, divided we fall').

    Thirty years after the release of this documentary, five miners died in an explosion at Harlan County. When the film was shot, money was the bigger issue (industry profits rose 170% in 1975, but miner's wages rose only 4%); nowadays, however, safety is an even bigger issue. You'd think things would have been largely improved since then, but that's not really the case. 'Harlan County U.S.A.' is a remarkable documentary because it testifies and proposes solutions about a public struggle that shouldn't be overlooked, yet has been for such a long time, in the "land of the free and home of the brave".

  • Sequel To The Movie by 10

    Most people are aware of Barbara Kopple's 1976 Academy Award documentary film Harlan County USA. There was also a documentary book, We Be There When The Morning Comes, published in 1975 written by Louisville newspaper writer Bryan Woolley and photographer Ford Reid. Like Barbara Kopple they lived with miner families while documenting the strike for the book. Since I was a management consultant specializing in companies with troubled relationships I followed the Eastover Mining story through the year long strike process.

    In the Spring of 1976 Norman Yarborough called me at my office in Louisville. He explained the lack of sufficient progress and the continuing adversarial relationships that still existed. I spent three days visiting the mines, talking to miners, face bosses and superintendents. I did my analysis and made a proposal which he accepted. As a result, Eastover Mining occupied most of my life for the next 12 months. I was invited into the homes of the miners and enjoyed similar experiences as Wooley,Reid and Kopple. It was one of the most satisfying experiences in my 32 year career.

    You might check out the movie Harlan County War with Holly Hunter which is the Hollywood version of the strike. It is also on video.

  • Film review by 7

    Through direct cinema Barbara Kopple's Harlan County dramatizes the lives of Kentucky coal miners during a thirteen-month strike. This dramatized documentary vividly portrays the lives of Kentucky coalminers and their struggle. This cinema-verite documentary expresses a sympathetic over view of the miners and largely finds the views of the miner's wives. Kopple leads us into the drama of this event by showing the concerns and arguing of the workers, the men firing at them, the confrontation with law enforcement, and the blockade of replacement workers with the picketers holding guns with their wives standing with them (Bordwell and Thompson p. 583). Along with this Kopple expresses another theme in the film. Kopple's use of many venues to display the stereotypical view of rural working-class versus the intellectual city dwellers is clearly related to her intrinsic sympathy toward the coalminers. This theme is expressed though out much of the film, from the music to the many shots of the miner's face and focus on their poor maintained teeth. Also to this extent there are many scenes of the town they live in, focusing on the low maintained houses and shacks. To further portray this theme, Kopple chooses to shoot a conversation between a striker and a police officer, while outside picketing in the city. The discussion was based on the comparison of each lives and jobs. The officer expresses interests in the striker's benefits and salary. The striker's responses to these inquiries are that of how little they receive. In this shot, also it is found that the officer had no idea of the strike clearly expressing the worth or public outlook of these rural workers. This theme is mainly tied with Kopple's need to express sympathy to the strikers and depict the men in power of the mine as cold-hearted businessmen. This is seen in the film in many different venues. First and most blatant could be the interviews of the men in power is very dry and shallow compared to the view of the striker's emotion and daily drama. Another tool used to express this image of sympathy is the Kopple's use of background information. These superimposed titles shots give information about the strike and things related to coalmine strikes. The music selection also reflects this view generally viewed as folk, clearly expresses Kopple's message of sympathy to the miners (Bordwell and Thompson p.583). Finally, these to basic themes and styles are one of the reasons that film is more of a synthesized film of the actual event. Kopple's own views are largely expressed and because of this, the cinema-verite accountability is largely questioned. The two themes, mainly her sympathetic outlook, only displays a one sided vision of the true event and all its components. This and the drama she captures and helps produce by being very forceful with the camera in some cases leaves one to wonder how much of this drama is real and how much is fiction because of her presence.

  • One of the most moving films ever made... by 10

    Why is this documentary not out on DVD??? I can honestly say I've never seen a film that managed to get me so emotionally involved in its subject. I'm lucky that I have a local video store that carries a wide range of documentaries as I'm sure most people might have a tough time tracking this one down. The story is as suspenseful and intense as any fictional movie I've ever seen, but these are the kind of people Hollywood never portrays. I come from the laurel highlands of Western Pennsylvania where the mountains were once dotted with coal mines, and the grave of the Yablonski family is located in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. I remembered the large grave when I was a child and my parents had told me they were murdered, but I never knew the whole story until I saw this film. This is a truly fantastic underdog story that will anger and move you. I wish there was a soundtrack to this movie too. The music is incredible! When the elderly woman (can't remember her name) sings "Which Side are You On?" (which she wrote years before for an earlier strike!) at the miners rally it is an immensely powerful performance and makes Natalie Merchant's recent version sound like an emotionless waste. Anyway, hunt this film down and watch it, show it to your friends and family, remember the good people of Harlan County and how the fought.

  • Music plays specific role by 9

    Film Review: `The Music Shaping Harlan County USA' Musical themes in documentaries are a key factor in setting the overall mood for the audience. The documentary Harlan County USA accentuates and enhances the validity of this characteristic. Directed by Barbara Kopple in 1976, this feature bestows more than the typical boring news interview with miners on strike in Kentucky. Kopple structures her material to provide tension, vivid characterizations and dramatic confrontations through the usage of music. More so however, it is because of early documentaries such as Harlan County USA that has aided in deriving a propaganda filled news genre of today. In the documentary, music brings an audience not only into a sense of what the times were like in association with the middle of the 20th century, but also is justifiably imposing compassion in the hearts of the viewing audience. This has led to a trend of propaganda found in nearly all news documentaries about controversial topics evolving around human welfare. To acknowledge this topic, the term propaganda must be understood more loosely than its general association with war. Propaganda is not always negative, and is frequently used in news stories to gain sympathy and mix emotions on a specific topic. For instance, if a story is proposed on ABC's 20/20 about child molestation, a theme of insecurity is a requisite for success. There are numerous tools that could be used for developing propaganda. However, the most common and effective tool is music. In the film, music plays a vital role in developing emotions for the audience in relating with the miners and their families. Songs such as `Cold Blooded Murder', `Which Side Are You On', and `The die has been cast now, and a good man is gone' are self-explanatory through their titles in demonstrating the hardship and struggle the miners faced. The images and interviews seen throughout the film help in understanding the facts but these songs amplify a greater amount of sentiment in the audience's minds. Near the end of the documentary `They Can't Keep us Down,' by Hazel Dickens is played to resemble a prominently happy conclusion in the miner's fight. This connotation is contradicted however when a miner states that the fight will continue and hardship will still be faced by many of the older miners whom are nearing an insufficient retirement. The ending of the documentary substantiates that in all fights there is usually no conclusive winner, just influential music to force the audience to support one opponent over the other.

1Kevin Keatingcinematographer
2Hart Perrycinematographer
3Barbara Koppledirector
4Nancy Bakereditor
5Mirra Bankeditor
6Lora Hayseditor
7Norman Yarboroughself
8Houston Elmoreself
9Phil Sparksself
10John Corcoranself