Thursday Editor’s Pick: Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

by on October 13, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Oct 20 at 4:30, 6:50*, 9:40 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with director Barbara Kopple at 6:50 show


Waaaaaaay before Occupy Wall Street, a local community of Kentucky coal miners fought the Man, in Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary that actually found a receptive mainstream audience.


Michael Atkinson for the Village Voice:

Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning socialist-cinema paradigm and an extraordinarily detailed chronicle of another, more intimate American war. Kopple documents a 1973 Kentucky coal miners’ strike in what amounts to real time—there are no after-the-fact summaries, but a persistent present tense of murder, gun threats, crowd violence, poverty, corporate usury, and in the end, astonishing communal solidarity. Simultaneously, Kopple sketches out a succinct historical context of nearly a hundred years of union building and its resultant bloodshed, a vast national story that still goes missing from public-school history texts (if not from Howard Zinn’s People’s History). In 1976, Kopple’s rather terrifying film rocked its minuscule audience and instantly became a cultural touchstone; today, it also spotlights, with its customized communist ballads, IWW sloganeering, and memories of healthier early-20th-century worker networks, the pathetic state of organized labor in the new global economy. As the miners make clear, workers have no rights in this democracy that they don’t fight like dogs for, and the film has no conclusion—the combat will always continue.



Elliott Stein was riveted, for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 1976):

Few documentaries rivet you to your seat; this one does. The guts it took to make are up there on the screen, in the footage shot by director Barbara Kopple and cameraman Hart Perry during the violent encounters between scabs (mostly KKK members) and strikers. It is obvious that Kopple’s rapport with the miners’ wives was extremely close; the women all come through strongly, especially Lois Scott, the Jane Darwell earth mother of Harlan who totes a gun in her cleavage. This is a partisan film, far from flawlessly made. Watching it, one becomes a partisan of the miners of Harlan County. I wish it wide distribution.


Noel Murray for the Onion AV Club:

Kopple originally intended Harlan County U.S.A. to be a verité documentary about the contentious election of a new union president—an election that ended with one candidate murdered, the incumbent arrested, and leadership given over, for the first time, to an actual miner. But then, for the sake of historical background, Kopple detoured into Kentucky, to the site of one of the bloodiest union-busting riots in American history, and she found history repeating itself. While her cameras rolled, she caught hired “gun thugs” threatening picketers (and her film crew), and she caught the growing dissension among the striking miners, whose cause was largely saved by angry wives, lightly radicalized by the ’60s and fed up with having to bathe their children in cold iron buckets.


Long regarded as one of the documentary form’s finest achievements, Harlan County U.S.A. hasn’t lost any of its power to grip and enlighten. As John Sayles phrases it, Kopple put in “the porch time,” developing sympathy for the miners and their families, and backing their frustration with statistics about the vast gulf between coal profits and coal wages from year to year. The film barely brushes the surface of the conflicted feelings working-class Americans have about unions and strikes—a subject Kopple confronted more directly in 1991’s equally powerful American Dream—but it gets the cruel irony of a man well past retirement age slapping on a helmet and heading back to a job he hates, for far less compensation than he’d hoped.



Paul Arthur for the Criterion Collection:

Barbara Kopple’s detailed analysis of a Kentucky mine workers’ strike is unmistakably of this time—a virtual hub of urgent themes, formal tendencies, political debates, and material practices that define post-sixties documentary in America. But unlike other docs of the period, its theatrical distribution and relatively wide appeal generated considerable public support; it is still the only nonfiction film to have played the New York Film Festival, won an Academy Award, and been granted a listing on the National Film Registry. Moreover, its compelling dramatic structure, hybrid visual style, and rejection of fly-on-the-wall impartiality anticipate key developments in contemporary nonfiction. Despite its modest subject and visual resources, Harlan County USA encompasses an extraordinarily broad and complex aesthetic agenda whose influence can be felt in later fictional movies as well as political docs.


Kopple has indicated that unfinished sections of Harlan County USA were used as organizing and fund-raising tools—besides having a powerful dramatic arc, it is practically a how-to manual for conducting a strike—and certain sequences are unabashedly pro-union arguments. Just as left documentarians of the thirties relied on Soviet-style montage to create symbolic connections, Kopple scores rhetorical points through clever editing juxtapositions; in one instance, she derisively annotates company spokesman Norman Yarborough’s euphemism about “upgrading” miners’ living conditions by inserting shots of abject housing as he speaks. Later, the strikers’ desire to escalate their tactics is expounded visually by cutting from a local picket line to protests at Duke Power’s corporate headquarters, in North Carolina, then to demonstrators on Wall Street imploring passersby not to buy energy stocks. At each new location, the action is framed in such a way that we are temporarily disoriented, a pattern that forces us to see how local miners’ issues segue into our own immediate economic concerns. The stirring effect is to posit an abstract concept—the solidarity of miners and urban energy consumers—through the collision of small fragments of actuality.


Pauline Kael for the New Yorker (January 1977):

The directness and simplicity of Kopple’s approach gives us something we wouldn’t necessarily get from an artist. No matter what their subject, the great documentarians give us films that express them; their vision transforms the material. This film is humbler – it conveys the material without imposing its own way of seeing. When you hear the director’s voice asking questions, she doesn’t seem at a distance from those who answer; she’s another character in the film rather than the artist conceiving it.


Early on, there’s a soft, lovely shot of a woman in big pink plastic curlers as she washes her children. Having none of the satirical condescension that Hollywood movies often show toward working-class people, the director (and the cameraman, Hart Perry) can perceive a beauty that includes five-and-dime plastic. This is not the sort of film in which one would expect the sex of the director to make much difference, but Barbara Kopple has unusual rapport with the women, and throughout – in groups, at meetings talking – they’re observed in a relaxed, friendly way. It’s apparent that they’ve had to be tough when they wanted to be pretty and tender. They try to keep themselves up, no matter what hell is breaking loose. Bouffant hairdos frame wrinkled, big faces – they’re never beyond caring how they look, except maybe in the presence of death. A gaunt, long-jawed woman – Sudie is her name – resembles Lily Tomlin, and has similar speech patters, but looks stronger; her voice is low, with an emotional crack. The sensitivity in Sudie’s face is concentrated; she has the trace of melancholy that converts plainness to beauty. She’s lived for a long time with deprivation and knows that what’s been lost is irretrievable. When she talks of her life, lets go of her emotions, and tears come to her eyes, we still see a bobby pin holding a pin curl in place above her ear, and the moment has an authenticity beyond the power of fiction films. Straight and scrawny in her white dress with its little puffed sleeves, Sudie has the classic sadness of the poor.


Marilyn Ferdinand considers Harlan County “the best American documentary ever made,” and considers it as a double bill with John Sayles’ Matewan, for Ferdy on Films.



Peter Biskind for Jump Cut:

Barbara Kopple’s feature length film about a coal miners’ strike in Kentucky, is the best U.S. documentary in a long time. The film has its faults. Its editing is ragged; its narrative structure is confusing and begins to unravel towards the end. But its faults are the consequence of its virtues: an energy, immediacy, and passion rarely seen in a U.S. documentary. The film’s power comes from Kopple’s intimate involvement with the people she filmed, the risks she took, the places—jails, courtrooms, stockholder’s meetings—into which she forced her camera. Its strength lies not in its beauty, nor even in its politics, but in the moral authority that is inscribed in every frame.


Harlan County is about the strike. We don’t learn much about what it feels like to work beneath the earth or get much sense of the texture of daily life lived in the shadow of the mine. The film is not an ethnographic study of a quaint community of mining folk. What we do get are images of struggle: picket lines, meetings, face-to-face interviews with UMW militants—which is just about everybody. The film is punctuated by funerals, which become occasions for the miners to express and reaffirm their solidarity with the bereaved and one another. Unlike the Pare Lorentz documentaries of the 1930s or the work of photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, the film rarely aestheticizes the miners. The one or two shots that do remind us of the iconography of the 1930s—the thin, pinched faces, sunken cheeks, round eyes of men who have worked long and hard for too little to eat, who have seen too little of the sun and known too little joy—merely serve to remind us how far we are from that frozen world of dignified poverty. There are no artfully composed shots in Harlan County, none of the silhouettes-against-the-horizon that mar Salt of the Earth. The film’s poetry is not one of image but of action, clarity, strength; its eloquence is that of the people within it. What visual beauty the film does have comes almost by accident, from the blue-gray early morning mist that shrouds the pickets gathered by the roadside to block scabs imported by the company to break the strike.



Nicolas Rapold for Reverse Shot:

The way Baker and Kopple step backwards a few years to fill in the Boyle-Yablonsky background is a virtuoso performance worth examining. The extended sequence occurs some time after the movie’s Altonian introductory overture of the miners in their element, crouching in letterbox tunnels and limned by light and dust (the first shot is an invocation by a silhouetted miner: “Fire in’hooole!”—the blast warning). These first scenes appear to occur at the time of the strike: an early standoff after a funereal column of police cars rolls up to the picket lines, a strike meeting, and, after some months later women passively resist, being dragged away. Some immediate legal consequences follow, miners get jailed; one woman, Bessie Parker (Lois’s daughter, equally savvy, yet tempered), gives a moving court speech about having done what was right. There’s a Duke Power press conference and then Kopple shifts the setting to the miners’ Wall Street trip, with a hilarious but affecting dialogue between a picketing miner and a union-cushioned cop (“What about insurance? You got about dental?” he asks). At Wall Street they protest at the shareholders meeting, and this shift to the corporate and administrative lets Kopple throw up statistics comparing profit gains (170%) with wage increases (4%). Bureaucracy follows (a government mine inspector admitting poor safety records), and then, after all the businessmen and the bureaucrats, explosions fill the screen: the 1968 Mannington mining disaster. Widows speak and (after a digression on black lung) the perfect cut arrives: after one woman spits out criticism in disgust, we see Tony Boyle mid-speech mimicking his critics—“Boyle’s doing nothing for the widows…” Then, concisely: the Yablonski murder, Boyle’s electoral defeat to rank-and-filer Arnold Miller, and Boyle’s being charged with ordering the hit. Next caption, after this seamlessly introduced historical backlighting: the 10th month of the strike begins. It’s only at this point that one realizes we’ve gone back in time and then returned to the time of the strike, so elegantly have Kopple and Baker created the strike as an event happening on more levels than just the present moment, but instead a nexus of emotions, history, and imagery of struggles telescoped from past through present.


Kopple wisely makes local music central to her movie, using traditional mining songs in segues, and showing some impromptu performances. For the funerals in the film, the singing is key: instead of being a silent observer at such fraught events, Kopple lets her images illustrate the keening vocals. In a way it’s a replacement of classic documentary’s “Voice of God” with a new voice: the voice of community, in the song they themselves have produced. Since Kopple is so entwined in the events she films, it’s a crucial move to tilt the balance of the narrative standpoint towards those being depicted. This is a movie that even in its time looked forward, partly from reflecting on the 1930s: there’s always work to be done.



Arthur again:

Oddly, in its time Harlan County USA was repudiated by elements of the cultural left, including some feminists; it centered a debate involving the political efficacy of documentary realism and the probity of commercial distribution. If a supposedly progressive film reached a popular audience, was that evidence of a compromised political perspective? Could adherence to standard codes of dramatic closure or visual transparency be understood as reaffirming aspects of bourgeois ideology? These were heated issues in the mid-seventies. While it is true that Harlan County USA privileges individual agency as a driving force in political struggle, and that it lays out a craftily calibrated three-act structure—replete with an epilogue of poststrike updates and two gritty excursuses: the union election campaign and a mini-essay on mine safety and black lung disease—it is far from a simple, unselfconscious recording of events. Accusations of naive propagation of documentary authority seem, on closer inspection, particularly ill-founded.


Paradoxically, it is Kopple’s avoidance of liberal, ecumenical nostrums that makes the “voice” of her film so spiky, and its commercial distribution so significant. In the early seventies, specialized companies such as New Day and Women Make Movies were formed to enhance public access to feminist work. Kopple supported these initiatives but went a slightly different route via Harlan County USA’s original distributor, Cinema 5, which carried primarily European auteurist titles. If her film never quite managed to break out of the art-house league, it signaled a breach in the invisible barrier separating the fiction and documentary markets. This de facto resistance to compartmentalizing movie genres or categories of production resurfaces in Kopple’s subsequent career, especially in her tenacious mixing of social analysis and entertainment. In this sense, Harlan County USA can be considered a signpost for recent nonfiction successes like Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and The Corporation. As Florence Reece put it, “They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.” For Barbara Kopple, the absence of neutrality proved to be not just a virtue but a cultural prophecy.


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