Ian Berke, realtor and real estate in San Francisco
Ian's Listings
SF listings
About SF
About Ian
Ian's List
Film Reviews
Stone Books
Legal & Privacy

tel 415.921.7300
cell 415.860.2777

DRE #444020

Film Review

Harlan Country, USA

Our country has a violent labor history, as working people struggled to form and join unions. Corporations were immensely wealthy, powerful, and often controlled legislatures. The steel, railroad & mining strikes of the late 19th and early 20th Century were bloody affairs, as company gunmen, police, and even the Army suppressed strikes and prevented organizing. Company response was usually brutal, and often sanctioned by the authorities. Labor historians generally agree that American strikes were the bloodiest of any industrialized nation. The 1894 Pullman strike in Chicago resulted in 13 strikers killed by the Army. The 1913 Ludlow (Colorado) Massacre, killed 25 people, including women and children, as National Guard troops attacked a miners' tent village with machine guns, then burned the village. There were literally hundreds of other violent actions against strikers until public pressure forced companies to become less brutal or attempt to conceal the violence. Strikes were for higher wages, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. Coal had long dominated the state legislatures in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, and working conditions were dangerous, hours long, and pay low. But these are some of the poorest areas in America, and miners were grateful for work. Harlan County, in southeastern Kentucky, was typical, with the county totally dominated by Eastover Coal, many miners living in a company town with ramshackle housing, debris everywhere, and a barely functioning sewer system. Archival photos are shocking, even for those used to the poverty of the Appalachians.

In 1972, miners struck the Eastover Coal Company, owned by Duke Power, and the company reacted as coal companies usually did. Scabs were hired, the state police called in, and company goons attempted to initimidate the miners, ultimately killing one. Barbara Kopple, a young film maker from Scarsdale, NY, and a small camera crew, began to film the strike, ultimately spending over a year in the community, and produced "Harlan County, USA". This was only the second film she had made, yet her footage is some of the most gripping and the people some of the most memorable that I have ever seen in a documentary. So many of these faces could have come right out of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange's iconic depression era photos. They are often eloquent, in a backwoods manner, and brave. The wives manned the picket lines as well, and in one of many memorable scenes, confront a violent company foreman and the sheriff. One scene shows some company goons coming up to Kopple and her cameraman, when suddenly the scene is turned upside down as they attack and beat Kopple and her crew. The miners are repeatedly threatened by men with guns, and finally get guns for themselves. A young miner is shot and killed in a night time drive by shooting but the grand jury refuses to indict. The scenes of the funeral are very moving. The stage is set for a full blown war, when the Federal government finally intervenes, and essentially forces the coal company and the UMW to reach a settlement giving the miners higher wages. There are important parallel stories here as well, such as the Yablonski murders. Joseph Yablonski was a union reformer, who, along with his wife and daughter, were murdered in 1969 by gunmen paid by the UMW president, Tony Boyle. The killers confessed, Boyle went to prison, and the new UMW leadership at last took some interest in the Harlan County strike.

So many of the scenes are unforgettable: miners at work, miners talking, footage of the community, the picket lines, the confrontations, the celebrations and grieving, all an important part of American history. This was an era when women were beginning to articulate their grievances, and the women here, including Kopple, had courage in spades. At a meeting of miners' wives, one pulls a pistol out of her bra and says she is not afraid. Another rallies the women in an inspirational speech that could move a mountain. Some sing poignant social protest mining songs, which form a good part of the soundtrack. The cinematography is intimate and always impressive, especially considering that this was the era of large film cameras, not handheld video cameras. Kopple's evening and low light scenes are especially impressive. Beginning in 1990, after a 14 year gap, Kopple then went on to make nearly a film a year, mostly about social and cultural issues. To name just a few: "American Dream" (1990) covered the Hormel Meat strike in Wisconsin, and "Shut Up and Sing" (2006) looked at the reaction and political pressure against the Dixie Chicks after Natalie Maines criticized George Bush at a London concert.

"Harlan County, USA" was selected for best documentary at the 1977 Academy Awards, and the striking miners credited Kopple with saving their strike with her film, which had been largely ignored by the national media. There is so much political and cultural history crammed into this powerful film, that it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Although this film is well known among film historians and fans, I had never seen it. This year the San Francisco Film Society awarded Barbara Kopple their "Persistence of Vision" Award and screened "Harlan County, USA" yesterday afternoon at the Kabuki, followed by an interview, which was cut short when the fire alarms went off. Few have ever been more deserving of this award. Although I have never recommended seeing a film on DVD rather than in a theater, "Harlan County, USA" is genius and very much worth seeing at home. It is one of the finest and most memorable documentaries that I have ever seen. Even if you saw it when it first screened 36 years ago, see it again. It is a masterpiece.

Return to the List of Film Reviews

Home | Ian's Listings | SF listings | Rentals | Architecture | About SF | About Ian |
Ian's List | Legal & Privacy | ian@ianberke.com | © 2009- ianberke.com