Criterion Sunday 334: Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

In covering a miner’s strike in western Kentucky in the early-1970s, Barbara Kopple has shown us a side of America that rarely gets seen on-screen. Sure we’re all familiar with stereotypes of yokels from the Appalachians, but this film is about the work — coal mining, in this case — and the dangers of that work, the threats from the company owners, the meagre amount of pay and the terrible conditions of both the workplace and these people’s everyday lives. It never condescends to its subjects, and it’s firmly on the side of the strikers as they are aggressively confronted by strike-breakers, gun-toting ruffians who ride around in their pick-up trucks scarcely concealing the contempt and anger they have, and the force they’re willing to deploy to get their way. The police, too, are very much on the companies’ side, so we see the unequal force but also the vehemence of the strikers — and, notably, the women who are married to the miners, whose support is as strong if not stronger than their partners. From this tumult a number of characters start to become prominent, not least Lois Wood who keeps a gun in her bra and argues on behalf of confronting the violence they’re shown with their own violent resistance (she doesn’t quite get her way on that, mind).

Kopple contextualises the strikes with a sidebar on union politics (her original documentary subject before this one took over), notably the assassination of Jock Yablonski by the then-leader of the miners’ union in 1969, and the subsequent trial (shades of Harvey Weinstein as we see this previously vital man being wheeled into court as he performs being an invalid). Testimonies from those supporting the strike also recall the bloody 1930s when the so-called “Harlan County War” raged in a series of strikes that inspired a rich heritage of folk music, some of which we see performed (such as “Whose Side Are You On?” by Florence Reece, an old lady by the 1970s, but no less passionate about the union).

In short, it’s just great to see the urgent and heartfelt engagement with labour rights that subsequent decades of right-wing rule have since undermined so entirely. Of course, even by the end of this film it feels like so much is unresolved and will continue, as indeed I imagine it continues now, both here and on countless other fronts around the world, but the rights of the poorest in society should never be up for debate, and it seems sometimes as if it is constantly necessary to take a stand to protect them.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is The Making of ‘Harlan County U.S.A.’, a short documentary made for this release, in which Kopple and her producer and cinematographers reflect on the filming, and the dangers they faced in covering this story. There are also some interviews from a miner and one of the women shown in the film (the daughter of the film’s most interesting character, Lois Wood), though the intervening years and the very poor living conditions of the miners suggest that many of the main participants in the original documentary have long since passed. It’s fascinating of course to see how the film came together, and to get a sense of what we didn’t see in the telling of this story.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbara Kopple; Cinematographers Kevin Keating, Hart Perry and Tom Hurwitz; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 11 July 2020.

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