Harlan County, U.S.A.

Director: Barbara Kopple
Editor: Nancy Baker
Features: Lois Scott, Basil Collins, Norman Yarborough, Tony Boyle, Jock Yablonski
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1976
Country: U.S.
Harlan County, U.S.A. Criterion Collection DVD
Harlan County, U.S.A.Although Harlan County, U.S.A. was director Barbara Kopple’s feature debut, she had been involved in the production of several landmark documentaries of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter (1970) and Peter Davis’ Oscar-winning Hearts and Minds (1974). Thus, she had trained under and learned from some of the master filmmakers of the cinema-vérité movement, and it shows in her debut, an assured documentary that takes a single event and uses it as a magnifying glass through which we can see the jagged cracks in America’s mythology.

Kopple, who has since worked in both fictional feature filmmaking and television directing, is an accomplished documentarian, but her greatest gift may be her sense of subject matter. She was originally drawn to the topic of coal mining and unions in 1972 when Jock Yablonski was challenging W.A. “Tony” Boyle, the corrupt president of the United Mine Workers (U.M.W.), for control of the union. Yablonski was subsequently murdered along with his wife and daughter, and Boyle was later convicted of ordering their deaths. This is a compelling story if ever there were one, replete with corruption, power struggles, and murder.

Yet, Kopple found her real subject when, in 1973, the coal miners in Brookside, Harlan County, located in the rural hills of eastern Kentucky, went on strike to protest the refusal of their employer, Eastover Mining, a subsidiary of the utilities giant Duke Power, to sign a U.M.W. contract. Harlan and a few camera and sound operators traveled to Harlan County and wound up spending 13 months there documenting the increasing fractious strike. In the process, they became part of the event as they gained the trust of the striking workers and their families, who gave them complete access to what was happening both on the picket lines and in the organizational meetings behind closed doors. What emerges from the hundreds of hours of footage shot (brilliantly edited together for maximum effect by Nancy Baker) is a compelling narrative about the age-old struggle between the powerful and the powerless.

Harlan Country, U.S.A. is not, in any sense of the term, a “fair and balanced” portrayal. Kopple openly dismisses cinema-vérité’s insistence on studied distance between the filmmaker and her subject and instead uses her intimacy with the people to generate sympathy and understanding, but never condescension. Hollywood filmmakers inherently tend to look down on the poor and disenfranchised, even when they’re ostensibly in their corner; the poor are made into mock caricatures or sad-sack empty vessels meant to be filled with the audience’s piety.

The primary strength of Harlan County, U.S.A. is that it never presents its subjects as anything other than what they are. Their poverty is a defining characteristic, and Kopple neither soft-shoes around it or exploits it. Rather, she allows the fabric of their lived existence, which includes ramshackle houses without running water and a lack of health care that results in everything from black-lung disease to rotted teeth, to stand as testament to the necessity of their rebellion. However, the film doesn’t paint an easy Norman Rockwell portrait of folksy togetherness, either. Rather, we see disintegration within the strike organizers, as some of the workers stop coming to the picket line and one meeting of the women’s club devolves from organizational discussion to accusations of husband stealing. The miners and their families are human beings, and as such they are flawed like the rest of us.

It’s not surprising that Kopple can’t help but take some potshots at the hypocrisy of those in power, both at the utilities corporation and the union itself. Kopple films the corporate executives in tight, uncomfortable close-ups that make their platitudes seem even more self-serving and hypocritical. They use editing to juxtapose what people say with the conflicting realities of the situation. Sometimes, however, they don’t even need to intercede with editing. For example, just listening to the president of Eastover Mining describe the miners as “our people” sends chills up your spine when you realize that his attempt to be inclusive and folksy is actually an inadvertent revelation of how the company views the workers: as its property to do with what it sees fit.

The film is filled with intriguing and memorable characters, most of whom we grow to admire as the film progresses. Chief among these is Lois Scott, a relentless organizer who refuses to be cowed or threatened. Within the film’s constructed narrative, she is the strike’s guiding force and primary source of energy; the worse things get, the more fierce becomes her conviction, even though she is not even from Harlan County (her husband is a coal miner in a neighboring county, thus she feels connected to the strikers). Lois Scott is a documentarian’s dream subject--a person of such force and vitality that little or no effort is required to make her memorable.

The same could be said for Basil Collins, Lois Scott’s nemesis. Collins is a hulking, scowling beast of a man whose primary occupation is breaking up picket lines to allow the “scabs” to get through so the mine can continue operating. Unlike the film’s other subject, Collins does not appear in any talking-head interviews, although there is one tense moment when he calls Kopple and her cameraman over to her truck and engages her briefly, asking where her press credentials are. He smiles and drives off, but underneath it all we can sense a coiled animal just waiting to strike, which we see briefly, but horrifyingly in a slow-motion shot early in the morning when he drives by the line, his face a mask of anger matched in threat only by the barrel of his drawn gun. Aesthetically, Kopple makes Collins seem even more monstrous by filming him in long shot, as if the cameraman is literally afraid to get near him (which he probably was, considering the fact that the camera crew is physically assaulted at one point during the film by Collins’s scabs).

As a whole, Harlan County, U.S.A. is a powerful indictment of the damage that can be caused by capitalism left it its own ruthless devices. Yet, while that may sound like leftist, liberal pap, the film never once feels in any way sentimental or soft. If anything, its gritty depiction of the realities of rural coal miners overshadows any preconceived political agenda. The bluegrass music that dominates the soundtrack, much of which was borne directly out of coal-mining culture, reminds us that the hardships, frustrations, and pride inherent to the culture depicted has long, deep roots. Black-and-white footage of violent strikes in the 1930s that earned Harlan County the name “Bloody Harlan” make it clear that what was happening in 1973 was just another reincarnation of a long struggle, one that the end of the film makes clear is still being waged.

Harlan County, U.S.A. Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director Barbara Kopple and editor Nancy Baker
  • “The Making of Harlan County, U.S.A featurette
  • New video interview with bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens
  • Never-before-seen outtakes from the film
  • New video interview with director John Sayles
  • A panel discussion from 2005 Sundance featuring Kopple and Roger Ebert
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • New essays by film scholar Paul Arthur and music journalist Jon Weisberger
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 23, 2006

    Harlan County, U.S.A. was originally shot on 16mm, therefore there is some grain evident in the image, particularly in the darker shots. This is also exaggerated somewhat because the transfer for the DVD was made from a 35mm blow-up of the film struck from the original negative preserved and restored by the Academy Film Archive (subsequent digital restoration was also used). While the image looks great for its age and origins, some might have a justifiable beef with the1.78:1 aspect ratio in which the film is presented. Kopple and her crew obviously shot the film with 16mm’s native 1.33:1 aspect ratio in mind, as there are many instances throughout the film, particularly close-ups, that look too tightly cropped at 1.78:1. However, the liner notes specify that this is the ratio of the 35mm print restored by the Academy Film Archive. Plus, it also notes that the transfer was approved by Kopple, so she must be fine with it.

    The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the Academy’s original 3-track magnetic print and sounds great throughout.

    Despite being a single-disc release, Criterion has packed Harlan County, U.S.A. with an impressive range of supplements to commemorate its 30th anniversary. For those wanting a lot of detail about the conditions involved in the making the film, you can start with the screen-specific audio commentary by director Barbara Kopple and editor Nancy Baker. Kopple and Baker also appear along with several others involved in making the film in video footage shot at a panel discussion at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, where the film was honored. Roger Ebert moderates the panel, although with the exception of his opening remarks, he spends most of his time just listening, especially when Kopple invites several Utah mine workers who were currently on strike to come up and tell their story. “The Making of Harlan County, U.S.A” offers interviews with Kopple, cinematographers Hart Perry and Kevin Keating, and associate director Anne Lewis, as well as interviews with three of the people featured in the film: U.M.W. organizer Houston Elmore, miner Jerry Johnson, and strike activist Bessie Parker. While it is great to hear from the filmmakers, it is even more moving to see the film’s participants and hear their thoughts about their activities three decades earlier and the film that immortalized them. The disc also offers two other new video interviews, a lengthy one with bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens, whose songs are heard on the soundtrack, and a shorter one with director John Sayles, whose film Matewan (1987) was heavily influenced by Harlan County, U.S.A.. There are also six never-before-seen outtakes from the film culled from the hundreds of hours of footage shot, and the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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