Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Barbara Kopple
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  May 23, 2006

“Let’s show the people of Harlan County we stand together!”

Film ****

With the recent tragedy in the headlines about a group of miners who suffocated, the plight of the coal miner has been brought back into national attention.  It’s a perfect time to take a look back at one of the most extraordinary documentaries ever created. 

Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1976.  It chronicled a long and grueling strike by miners in eastern Kentucky who attempted to join the United Mine Workers of America.  It was a strike that lasted over nine months, eventually turned quite violent, and eventually became resolved in the workers’ favor.  Yet for all the things that changed, there were just as many that didn’t.

Harlan County, we learn, was once the site of a miners’ strike in the 1930s that became so violent the town earned the moniker “Bloody Harlan”.  As the film opens, Kopple takes her cameras right down to ground zero:  footage of the coal miners in their daily grind underground.  It’s dark, damp, dusty and tight…if you’ve never been claustrophobic before, this footage might awaken a bit of that in you.

They make little money for their backbreaking work, have hardly any benefits, and live in little rundown houses provided by their company that don’t even have indoor plumbing.  Workers, even when they’re young, start exhibiting the symptoms of Black Lung Disease caused by the buildup of dust in their respiratory system.  Many die from it.  Those that don’t require constant oxygen and can’t walk more than a few steps without getting out of breath.

The workers strike with the backing of the UMW, but the fight will be long and hard.  The union members never had a vote in ratifying their own contract before.  Using expertly cultivated historical footage, we se one union president who seems more in the corner of the company than the workers.  Another challenges him for his spot, and he and his family end up murdered.

Meanwhile, in the streets of Harlan, the company hires armed goons to escort their scabs past the strikers.  In one horrifying sequence, these mercenaries open fire with machine guns on the strikers and Kopple and her camera operator are knocked to the ground.  But they manage to get a chilling shot of one of the thugs driving through in his truck wielding his gun.  A warrant is later issued for his arrest.

The women in this film are strong and capable, bearing the hardships of the strike and even rallying together themselves to help the union cause.  One makes a memorable speech in a courtroom before being sentenced to jail.  Another reminds her bickering cohorts of what’s important and what’s not.  Most memorable is a 16 year old mother with a newborn child whose husband’s shooting death tragically instigates the final resolution to the strike.

But I think my favorite part is when the strikers go to New York to protest on Wall Street where their company’s stocks are traded.  One engages in a conversation with an amiable police officer, who had no idea what life was like for a Kentucky coal miner.  Their exchanges are priceless.

And even though modern events have put the hardships of coal miners back into the national conscience, there are also events that have ironically put unions back under the microscope as well.  Airline and auto industries have been losing billions to pay for contracts they can’t afford.  Average people find it hard to afford a plane ticket or a new car that won’t fall apart on them in a couple of years.  And there’s even an intriguing post script sequence to Harlan County USA.  You might think that the workers winning their contract would be the finale, but it goes a little farther, as they strike and strike again for this and that.  One says he wants 13 weeks of paid vacation a year.  And at one point, the union agrees to a contract that says they won’t strike for the term of duration of that contract, and they immediately go on strike to get BACK the right to strike they gave up.

It’s a constantly swinging pendulum that never seems to find the middle.  On one extreme, there’s a need to protect common workers who give their minds and bodies for little in return in places with no competition and few choices.  On the other is the need to protect the economy and keep businesses afloat when unions grow from support mechanisms to strangleholds.

The pendulum rarely finds that middle ground, but it certainly seems Barbara Kopple did, capturing a moment in time when the struggle for unity was in its rawest infancy.  Her fearless approach and dedication has brought about a slice of life few of us outside the world of the miners will ever experience.  Many unions may have grown into something a lot different than what they started out to be, but Harlan County USA preserves a picture of them as the impetus for a struggle for rights, dignity and freedom.

Video ***1/2

This restored print looks quite good; it looks better than many films from the 70s I’ve seen on DVD.  The opening sequences are dark but effective, and the colors and details come through their natural muted forms with clarity.  Naturally, given the source material and lower budgeted film stocks, there’s bits of noticeable grain and texture here and there, but these not only are true to the source, but actually accentuate the grittiness of these peoples’ lives.

Audio ***

"Whose side are you on, boy...
Whose side are you on?"

The audio is also very good, with moments of startling dynamic range.  A lot of the live recording wasn’t done in the best of circumstances, but it captures the overall feel of the moments, and the numerous bluesy country songs that reflect the miners’ plight are a tremendous plus.

Features ****

There’s a terrific new commentary track from Barbara Kopple and her editor Nancy Baker, in case you ever wondered what it would be like to be on the front lines of a very dangerous situation trying to make a film about it.  A new making-of documentary chronicles the film, and speaks to many of the crew and some of the actual participants in the strike.  There are six outtakes compiled from Kopple’s hours and hours of raw footage that had never been seen before.

There’s also a panel discussion with Kopple and Roger Ebert during the 2005 Sundance Festival’s tribute to the film (in which coal miners from Utah and their current struggles are highlighted), a video interview with Hazel Dickens, who penned many of the film’s memorable tunes, an introduction by director John Sayles and a trailer.


Criterion strikes again (no pun intended) with Harlan County USA.  This grim, gripping yet completely approachable documentary about a real coal miner’s strike in the 1970s has to be considered one of the truly great and truly American films ever.

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