Harlan County USA is a 1976 documentary directed by Barbara Kopple about a 1973 strike at the Brookside Mines in Harlan County, Kentucky. There is no narration. Only a few on-screen messages provide basic information about the strike or about national developments in cold mining labor relations. Instead Kopple organizes the film so that the words and faces of the coal miners and coal mine owners and others tell the story. (Her voice is often heard in the background of the film, asking questions of the miners). This approach works extremely well. It is a small and focused story. But it becomes a microcosm for a study of labor relations in the American coal mining industry in the 20th century.
The film documents a strike against the Duke Power Company in a small Kentucky coal mining community. The people who live there are for the most part not especially educated. They live in shacks and rundown shanties. They live hard lives in general, both in and out of the mines. Harlan County has a long history of difficult coal mining labor relations going back into the 1930s. Several of the older miners and their wives reminisce about that era.
The personalities and voices of the miners and their wives make this film memorable. They speak with simple eloquence. They may not be highly educated, but there is nothing unintelligent or ignorant about them. The film is shot in color, but the black-and-white hues you would expect in a coal mining community dominate the film. For the most part the miners and their families are lower-class whites. Only a few black coal miners appear, but they seem to get along well with the other miners even though this is a 1973 rural Appalachian Kentucky community.
The film highlights the role of women as part of the Brookside Mine strike. They support their husbands and often stand on the front lines, opposing the goons and thugs hired by the coal mining company to intimidate and threaten the striking miners. When the men seem to be losing interest in the strike, the women upbraid and encourage them to press on. During a meeting that follows a particularly violent attack on the striking miners, one woman pulls a pistol from her blouse and announces that she is ready to answer violence with violence. The women are a fundamental part of the struggle against Duke Power.
Folk and mountain songs about coal mining provide background music for the film. Some of the miners are shown performing music, singing and playing banjo or guitar.
The film is about the exploitation of the coal miners. It makes clear that the exploitation is not only the fault of the local managers of the Brookside Mine and the Duke Power Company but also that of the upper administration of the UMW. The film implies, or at least the coal miners believe, that deals have been cut between the coal mining owners and the UMW bosses and that the coal miners themselves are powerless to negotiate agreements that will change their working and living conditions. When this film was being made a major transition was taking place in the UMW. New individuals were challenging the UMW leadership. In 1969 reform-minded Joseph A. Yablonski ran to unseat the long-entrenched Tony Boyle as president of the UMW. In December of that year, Yablonski and his wife and daughter were found murdered in their home. Boyle himself was convicted in 1974 of commissioning the crimes. These events are all covered in the film.
Harlan County USA is a wonderful example of how a documentary can illustrate and explain history through the voices of people who themselves are making history. This is an eloquent, extremely well made film. It's moving and sometimes emotionally draining. But it's also uplifting and inspiring. When the strike is over, the coal miners get their contract. It's not exactly what they wanted, but it's better than what they had. The national UMW succeeds in negotiating a contract for the national coal mining industry and even that is imperfect (it denies miners the right to strike on the local level). At the end of the film the miners return to the mines for the first time in thirteen months, resolved to continue with the only occupation they know, resolved to continue struggling to improve their circumstances.
Harlan County USA is widely respected as one of the best examples of documentary filmmaking in America. It deserves that reputation. It won the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary film.