Harlan County USA September 30, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Barbara Kopple

RATED

NR

RELEASED IN

1976

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 43 Mins.

I

n all, it took documentarian Barbara Kopple about four years to complete 

her sophomore film. For Harlan County USA (1976), Kopple and her crew descended on southeast Kentucky to film the unionization efforts by 180 Brookside Mine and Prep Plant workers — plus their spouses — in the summer of 1973. They wound up staying for about a year and a half. What they captured was condensed into a mere 103 minutes; what comes

together is one of movie history’s most astounding, abidingly relevant documentaries, distinguished by a stunning breadth of access and a refusal from Kopple, who only was in her mid-20s when she started work on the movie, to weave an ultimately palatable story from the copious footage thinned by editors Nancy Baker and Mary Lampson. 

 

Harlan County USA is a powerful document of life in its rural setting and how the corporation dominating its labor force affects it. It’s also a powerful document of the precariousness of unionization particularly when the power imbalance between employer and employee is this mightily lopsided. Kopple and her crew don’t come across like parachuting-in journalists; by living among the locals, they cultivate a trust allowing most of the area’s population to feel safe speaking at length about their frustrations and fears, and in general simply living in front of the cameras. The film’s immediacy is bolstered by the exclusive use on the soundtrack of bare-bones folk music sung by locals. The choice is a testament to the measures Kopple takes to not force any kind of world-away sensibility or distracting subjectivity onto the film, prioritizing the perspectives and experiences of those on whom she’s putting a spotlight without letting herself get too much in the way. (Though you of course wonder how many other movies could be put together using her exact same assortment of footage; how might they contrast?)
 

Kopple and her crew stay put even when risk is most imminent — something that reaches its acme when, mid-film, she and her crew are out at night with some strikers and find themselves getting literally shot at, then beaten up, by anti-union scabs. Amazingly, one of Kopple’s camerapeople captures the face of one of the shooters as he drives past them, his gun still sticking out of the window and his face still fixed in a homicidal scowl. On a subsequent morning, strikers are again confronted by guns; many of the strikers’ wives feign fearlessness, particularly the movie’s fiery standout figure Lois Scott. Kopple later recalled her terror being so immense that it felt like a thick juice coursing in her body. Later, she found out she and her crew were actually on a hit list devised by a head scab. 
 

The miners eventually did receive a contract they thought of as fair. But Kopple doesn’t close the book there. She draws attention to wider striking efforts in the country and also notes how signing a new, better contract is not a be-all and end-all solution but, if anything, the opening of a new chapter for a struggle that will only continue evolving — something fiction movies about unionization tend not to get at because of how obviously enlivening it is to line up a film’s ending with the soaring emotions coming with the promise of a better wage and working conditions. In Harlan County USA, which marked a rare commercial breakthrough for the then-still-niche documentary genre, the exhaustion and fear endured practically beam off the screen. (So does the galvanizing drive for a better future: “If I get shot, they can’t shoot the union out of me,” one woman puts it plainly.) And it reminds you what exactly it means when a triumph is truly battled for — how much the presence of labor in one’s life can become all-consuming, whether’s it’s being pushed against or tolerated. A