Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

Harlan County U.S.A. is a movie starring Norman Yarborough, Houston Elmore, and Phil Sparks. A filmed account of a bitterly violent miner strike.
  • 8.3 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Writer:
  • Barbara Kopple, Director:
  • Producer:
7 / 10

unique and enlightening documentary chronicles labor strike

This movie is a must-see for fans of socially active documentary film, or for those interested in the American labor movement.

It sometimes loses momentum as it documents the details of a particular labor strike in a mining town in rural Kentucky; yet that particular strike yields many memorable moments, including flashes of violence and revelatory dialogue. The company men are deliciously slick and slimy, and their goons are so ornery, that it's easy to forget that these people are real!

Where this film is at its best is where it uses historical footage and traditional labor songs to tie the strike to the larger past, and also where it explores other details of these people's lives -health issues, living conditions- that aren't specific to the strike. In this sense, the film becomes an important historical document of its own accord; unique, compelling, and enlightening to future generations.

9 / 10

My favorite film

After voting for almost 1000 films in the Internet Movie Database I rate Harlan County USA as the best film I've ever seen. I think that means that it moved me more than any other. I've seen it four times but not for many years.

Last night I watched the made for TV Harlan County War, but switched the video off half way through. It didn't add anything to the original documentary which also covered this long strike at the Brookside mine in 1973. In fact the dramatisation made the unfolding events of the strike look somewhat predictable and cliched - playing out with similarities to Norma Rae.

In Barbara Kopple's film I was horrified that the strike was over something we here take for granted in Australia - the simple right for the workforce at a place of employment to be represented by a labor union. The hypocrisy of the US government's persistent claim that the nation is a leader in democratic rights was never been made so apparent (except perhaps in Salt of the Earth)

What's so great about Harlan County USA?

* The clarity of the portrayal of the grotesque power of monopoly capital

* The way Koppel and crew are right in there, every day, every night - totally committed to the struggle, not just observers They're not your back to the city at 5pm chroniclers - they're in there for the long haul.

* The way that representatives of Duke Power so eloquently state their sheer nastiness and lack of basic humanity

* The evocative portrayal of the tensions amongst the strikers and the ebbs and flows of enthusiasm, optimism, despair, pessimism, solidarity, and opportunism.

* The way it captures the dimension of violence in US labor relations - in the land of the gun.

* The emergence of stong women and the pivotal role they played.

* The haunting music of Hazel Dickens.

* The moving songs of black-lung affected Nimrod Workman.

* The dramatic juxtaposition of the beauty of the woods and hollows and the grinding poverty and deplorable living conditions.

* The broader chronicling of the conditions in the "Other America".

* The trip to New York to put their case and a great conversation between a Kentucky miner and a police officer.

Above all this is a film that can inspire the powerless to take on the mighty - because working people do have tremendous bargaining power, if they stay resilient and united.

7 / 10

A gripping reality that still exists in America.

Dirt roads, no plumbing, wages lower than the standard living condition rates, abused mentally and physically by a large monopolistic corporation, and a lack of a full education are all factors that led to the strike of the minors in Harlan County. A county that time as well as the nation forgot. A county that did not progressed on beyond the persecution and disgraceful treatment of the 1930's proletariat. A county where the average man lived in constant fear that there would not be a constant and or adequate income; where the only way to see change was to unite and to revolt by any means to force people to see the intolerable conditions that they live in.

This documentary was filmed over a period of 4 years which in turn showed the lack of speed for a change from a peon work ethic to one of equality. The men of the mine saw the results that a union in other parts of the country and the standard of living that most Americans enjoyed as compared to their own situation. The community of Harlan County had a desire for change from an almost forced labor to one where the worker could make choices, have health care and to not live from pay check to pay check. The men and the woman were willing to risk everything for a better future for their children. The wives of the minors not only lived in the same conditions but had the same drive for changes and a difference. The women not only increased the numbers for picket lines but they also brought the importance of the strike to an `at home' feel. The rough terrain, harsh living community, and dirty, dingy way of life that a miner and a miner's family lived in was adequately represented in the film via the raw nature of the interviews and the in the field live spontaneous coverage. You as the viewer did not sit back and watch the film but instead were brought in to the lives of these men and woman. The filming brought a sense to the audience that you were there on the picket line, you felt the terror of being attacked, and you experienced the chaos when shots were fired at unarmed citizens. The falling of the camera and the blackness of the shot exemplifies the nature of not understanding what was going on at that moment. This in your face type of filming also show all aspects of what a strike of this nature entails. The viewer saw the aftermath and hospitalization of the battles between unarmed men and the `gun -thugs' sent to end picket lines. Like Bordwall and Thompson state the film crew used was small and more mobile, this not only rejected the traditional ideals of script and structure but also allowed the film makers to almost disappear into the back ground and let the action unfold in font of their eyes. This form of filming were there is a no holds bar or in your face tactic shows all portions of the incident, meaning that there is a feeling that the camera was never turned off. It brought light to a subject that most would not have known about, a subject that it profoundly influenced. The press that such documentaries bring to these hidden incidents carries a strong level of change and importance that otherwise would not be there. The filming of these events is intense. The film must express the telling of a complete story, one that ties the events that previously unfolded through the elapsed filming time to a coherent ending, being it either good or bad. The documentary film is a modern day form of passing on a lesson or an experience to a new audience, the modern day word of mouth story telling.

7 / 10

Which Side Are You On?

Possibly the finest documentary I have seen and I've seen quite a few. Exemplary on how a filmmaker can involve herself, be in everybody's face, get every little thing on camera, but be testifying instead of exploiting. My greatest delight in this film was how articulate and intelligent the miners and their wives were; textbook English is far inferior to their language. Also see "Matewan" by John Sayles for another perfect evocation of struggle. Watching this movie makes my previous semi-respectful estimation of Michael Moore's self-love evaporate. This is how it should be done, and lord if only all such struggles resolved thusly. Lois Scott for president. See this as quickly as you can.

7 / 10

harlan sings the blues

Barbara Kopple's 1976 documentary "Harlan County USA" remains one of the finest portraits of the struggle between faceless and greedy corporations and the employees who work themselves to the bone to eke out a living. The film deals with a coal miner's strike in a small Kentucky town during the early 70s. These seemingly insurmountable odds to strike up agreements between the company and the union in this Harlan County town dip back as far as a bloody battle there during the 1930s.

The miners and the picketers are captured via a well-maintained cinema verite style to the point that much of the early dialogue in the film is indiscernible and lingers there only as a means to introduce the tone. Music plays a key role in the emotional impact of this gritty film as well. Considering it takes place in the Bluegrass State, it comes as no surprise that so many of the most intense moments in the film carry with them a heart-wrenching rendition of roots music, most of which pertain specifically to coal mining.

"Harlan County USA" removes the presumptions that such human atrocities are far gone memories of America's past, and would pave the way for other important pro-workers rights films as "Norma Rae", "Silkwood", and "Matewan".