A group of impoverished coal miners in rural Kentucky strike against their company. They’re shot at and beaten. The camera crew is attacked as well.
Harlan County, USA is documentary at its most exciting. It’s political, it’s violent, it’s ethnic. The popular activist docs of the present; i.e. Gasland, Food, Inc., use the same ingredients, but no one has put together the recipe as well. This exactly the documentary every filmmaker wants to make.
Barbara Kopple didn’t go looking for trouble. She set out with a pretty boring idea — the election of the president of Miners for Democracy. But the people she found in Eastern Kentucky turned out to be more interesting. She lived with them for years. She became familiar enough with them to portray their often caricatured lifestyle — rural, Southern and poor — in a genuine, upfront way, without smacking of exploitation.
Kopple’s story focus is dead-on. Her coal miners’ complains are real, but she portrays them in a non-specific way. I see their problems; black lung, hobbled backs, no running water, no hope for the future. But I don’t know the details of their contract with Duke Power or with the union.
This is what gives Harlan County legs. Details of the miner’s grievances would have added historical distance; omitting them took it away. If we learned that the 1972 strike guaranteed certain wages or overtime benefits, some could simply dismiss the film, saying “things are much better now,” and view the movie as a historical document. But by focusing on the power struggle between a police-backed company and a (somewhat) media-backed union, it keeps a contemporary appeal. We know people, or at least know of people, who live like those in Harlan County.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.