Barbara Kopple spent thirteen months living and breathing the dust of a brutal coal strike. Out of it came this groundbreaking documentary.
Harlan County, USA documents a dark subject, but it is far from being a dark picture. Barbara Kopple’s record of the year and more struggle whereby the coal miners, and notably their wives and mothers, won a United Mine Workers contract from the Brookside mine (parent company, Duke Power) is, among other things, a celebration of human excellence. The mining families of Harlan County are a deprived and abused people – you have only to see their teeth to know it. But a sad or beaten people they are not; on the contrary, they are vivid, eloquent, quick of body and mind, and witty. Needless to say, they are ill-educated, but by force of intelligence they go an astonishing way to overcome the lack.
I don’t know how it comes about, this feeling of quality that springs from person after person as the cameras turn toward them. Of course, Ms. Kopple and her crew lived close to these families in the months of their grinding, mortally dangerous struggle, came to respect and love them, and reflect these feelings in their photography. You cannot, however, evoke a sense of group elan from dolts; the people, in their pain and triumph, speak for themselves, In part, their history sustains them. They are the heirs, sometimes the survivors, of “Bloody Harlan,” and it is a banner they fly to rally themselves. Beyond that, and though I am no geneticist, it occurs to me that natural selection may have been at work. As they have been run for generations, the coal mines are killers –only the remarkably able of mind and body survive long enough to be struck down by black lung. So it may be that the owners, largely absentee owners, by decades of utter indifference to the lives of their workers, have contributed to the breeding of an indomitable clan. That is how it looks and, though it may be unscientific, it has the attraction of irony.
Harlan County is an overtly partisan film. Its cameras are always with the pickets, facing the straw bosses and the scabs; wooden staves against handguns. The rallies and strategy meetings of the miners are bubbling with the personalities of men and women one comes to know and with whom one cannot fail to identify; the meetings of the owners and their surrogates are formal, gray with dispassionate cruelty. It is partisan, but I think not distorted. Tony Boyle is given his say; can the cameras make him anything but obscene? If a Duke Power executive is prepared to doubt publicly that the dust in the mines produces black lung, what can be offered to “balance” his view? Even an official of the U.S. Bureau of Mines admits that Great Britain, Germany, Holland and the other industrial countries mine coal without slaughtering miners, and acknowledges that his agency carries a large share of the blame. The Brookside foreman, driving his pickup truck through the pickets with a gun in his hand is no actor–he is in very truth a frightening man. His side kills; the other side could kill as well, but it does not.
It could be objected that the film concentrates on the human story at the expense of the underlying economic changes. When praising the resolution and bravery that won the Brookside miners their contract, it should perhaps have mentioned that the sudden shift back to coal, in the wake of inflated oil prices, has put the men in the strongest position they have enjoyed for at least a generation. And in the closing half hour or so of the film, after Arnold Miller becomes president of the UMW and the industry is hit by a series of strikes, primarily over safety and benefits, the chronology blurs. The intent of the editing is to suggest that the miners war is never won; that may well be true, but the argument is not cogent.
However that may be, Harlan County attains its main goal–to honor a segment of our society which the rest of America has been willing to write off as underdogs, victims sacrificed to the imperatives of an industrial nation. It is a shock to discover that these expendable, burrowing creatures are in fact as splendid a people as the country can show. Ms. Kopple found a great cast; she has made a film worthy of her company and their story.