They Too Are We: Reviewing Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA” (1976)

A shot of a miner's wife smoking in a cigarette from Barbara Kopple's "Harlan County, USA".

Too often it is easily taken for granted certain life ‘luxuries’ that should otherwise be considered necessities—electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, and surviving without the limits of poverty. I am always agog when I hear the rich say, ‘Well, I worked hard for my money,’ as if to imply those who undergo poverty don’t work hard. Rather, those who struggle are often stuck in dead end jobs, remain prisoners of their town, and then there are the coal miners who undergo a daily suffering on another level altogether—long hours, low wages, black lung disease, and daily dangers are just some of the problems, not excluding their meager means of living—no decent home with clean, comfortable rooms and a bath. ‘Why don’t they just get out and leave?’ someone might ask. Well, without the financial resources, there is not much freedom for those living on meager wages.

Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA is a must-see documentary that showcases the seminal moment when the Harlan Kentucky coal miners joined the United Mine Workers of America, only to have Duke Power Company refuse to sign. Thus came the strike and the picket line. And that is what this film is about—commiseration, unity, fairness, and joining together for a greater good. The many little Davids who must stand up to this impending Goliath who, with its ‘electricity burning over there—there’s someone dying everyday for it.’

Much of this film is not about the miners themselves and what they undergo amid their routines—yes, there is mention of black lung and what it does to the respiratory system (a dried lung is shown to crumble in the hand as if it were ash), and we do witness the grit, the dirt, the misery. But rather, this is a film that illuminates the miners’ wives, as they remain the most steadfast and galvanizing on the picket line. (One woman—Lois Scott—even pulls a pistol out from her bra.) ‘They’re treating us like we’re animals, dogs—but we’re not, we’re American citizens,’ Scott reminds the fellow wives.

Harlan County, USA opens with a miner shouting into the mine. Then, there is an explosion. ‘All clear!’ he announces. We hear how the lives of mules were valued more than the lives of men, and as the film begins, we are informed that in 1973, when the men in the Brookside Mine in Harlan, Kentucky voted to join the United Mine Workers of America. None of this goes without its burden however, as we inevitably must witness the poverty and misery—those living amid abandoned car parts strewn in the yards, their squalid dwellings within houses that lack running water. Yet, we also witness a woman sweeping the coal dust off her front porch in her desire to keep whatever clean she can.

Then comes the violence, the condescension. ‘We have made them dozens and dozens of proposals,’ says Carl Horn, the President of Duke Power Company, as if he has taken on some great burden. Too often there are those in power who don’t believe that something is a problem unless it affects them. (Or there are those who don’t even need to be in power—if it doesn’t affect me, then it doesn’t matter.) As example, look at those in Congress today who choose to vote down universal health care, all the while claiming that, ‘The US has the greatest health care in the world.’ Sure, that is true, if you are able to afford it. Those in Congress can. Those who can’t afford it are out of luck.

Barbara Kopple spent 18 months in Harlan, wherein she shifted the focus of her film topic to the Brookside Strike, and risked her life doing so. At one point Kopple and her crew were knocked down and faced with gunfire (the man in the film who fires the gun was later sent to jail), as those on the ‘other side’ didn’t want this evidence recorded. Furthermore, Harlan County, USA contains wonderful Bluegrass songs sung by the locals and, most notably is the song that asks, ‘Which side are you on?’

Another observation is the apparent respect (at least as presented in the film, on camera) between races, where an African American coal miner jokes that whites come out looking like him and that skin color doesn’t matter when one is a miner. Here we witness black and white men bonding due their similar experiences and feelings on their joining the union. Commiseration. In this film, the Duke Power Company is the enemy, as are the scabs—those ever willing to cross the picket line.

I commend Barbara Kopple for creating such a masterful film, as she does so with a highly sympathetic eye and without resorting to condescension. (At first, the citizens were wary of ‘this hippy girl from New York,’ but soon she got to know the families individually, and they grew to trust her.) Here, what you see is what you get and Kopple pulls no punches—so to speak. By granting the citizens a voice, we hear their collective stories from their perspective, and their stories amid their grief and excitement, all align.

Harlan County, USA is a film that carries such historical significance that following its release, it was archived into the Library of Congress. As a strong advocate for workers’ rights, Barbara Kopple knew that sometimes the only way to get the point across is to hold up the camera and treat it as a mirror, allowing for us all to see. We almost want to look away from this suffering, but that would not do the film justice. Harlan County, USA is both brutal and funny. It is seminal and factual. We see citizens who realize and recognize that they’re here and that they matter. That they are human beings deserving of their rights, and we can’t turn away from them because this is our problem—they too are we. Look to the title. Harlan County, Kentucky is Harlan County, USA.

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