Classic Corner: Harlan County, USA

Don’t let recent events fool you: unions are not what they used to be. Sure, in recent months, strikes by the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild shut down Hollywood; members of the United Auto Workers walked out of factories run by General Motors, Stellantis, and Ford;  and in Portland, Oregon, teachers struck over demands for better pay and smaller class sizes, the same demands that prompted California State University faculty to authorize a strike. As one Associated Press article noted, “At least 453,000 workers have participated in 312 strikes in the U.S. this year.” On the surface, it seems like labor unions are experiencing a renaissance, but a deeper dive into the numbers does not bear this out. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership has fallen to its lowest number yet on record. In 2022, just barely over ten percent of the workforce belonged to a union, down from the twenty-five percent of forty years ago. Given that fact, Harlan County, U.S.A. has perhaps never been more vital than it is right now, the Academy Award-winning documentary a powerful reminder that, like the old song says, the union makes us strong.

Released in 1976, Harlan County, USA chronicles a 1973 strike by coal miners at the Eastover Coal Company’s Brookside Mine in eastern Kentucky. Director Barbara Kopple and her small crew embedded themselves with the miners and their families, stood on the picket lines with them, sat in on their strategy meetings. The end result is a frontline cinéma vérité account of the strike, relying only on minimal subtitles and eschewing any sort of traditional voiceover narration to contextualize the action unfolding onscreen. This story belongs to the people who lived it,  a story that is told with the words of the miners, their wives, and their children. 

I say traditional narration because Kopple does employ music to offer context and commentary. Fittingly, the music comes from Appalachian natives, such as the West Virginia singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens. “Remember the disaster at the Mannington mine,” one song goes, a montage of mourning mothers and widows on the screen, “where seventy-eight miners were burned alive.” Yet another song describes the lack of health benefits for the miners, with Dickens singing, “You’re not even covered in their medical plans, and your life depends on the favors of man.”  

This latter song, “Black Lung,” plays over images of miners receiving treatment for coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, the camera close enough that we can see the pain on their faces with every labored breath. Moments like these are numerous, as Kopple is unafraid to take the audience somewhere uncomfortable, from the black lung clinics to a funeral for a slain miner to the dark and danger of a mine, deep in the earth. These scenes play as reminders that, in Harlan county, death never feels far away, even on the picket line. In one climatic moment, coal company gun thugs attack the strikers with fists, pipes, and a barrage of bullets. Kopple herself is shoved to the ground. Screams fill the soundtrack. Still, the filmmakers prove unwavering in their mission. The camera keeps rolling, capturing the violence.

“I think that was the most important film in my life because I learned what life and death was all about,” Kopple said in a later interview. “I saw people really standing up for what they believed in.”

The camera’s steely gaze is matched only by the that  of the union men and women fighting for a new contract. At one point, we go inside a stockholders meeting for Duke Power, the parent company of Eastover Coal. A striker stands up in the meeting and addresses Carl Horn, Duke Power’s president. At first, the striker is shown in a medium shot, standing in the foreground of a packed room. Kopple cuts to Carl Horn’s reaction before cutting back to the striker, staying on him until he finishes speaking, a close-up on his face.  “Well, I’ll tell you, Mr. Horn,” the striker says, ending his remarks, “I’m going to be standing on that picket line looking at you just as long as it takes.” The camera stays on him a beat or two more, lingering on his fixed stare and punctuating the striker’s determination.     

In 1931, Florence Reece, the wife and daughter of a coal miner, wrote the song “Which Side Are You On?” for the labor disputes happening in Harlan county at that time. But forty years went by and miners were still fighting for a fair deal. Reece speaks at a rally in the film, her voice frailer in her old age but her words no less resounding. “If you go to Harlan county, there is no neutral there,” Reece sings. “You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair. Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” With today’s dwindling union numbers, the question feels just as pertinent. It’s impossible to watch Harlan County, USA and come away unmoved by the exposition of the evils of capitalism, the plight of workers, and the strength of a committed few. Unlike Reece’s song, though, Harlan County, USA doesn’t just ask us to pick a side. It demands it.

“Harlan County, USA” is streaming on Max and the Criterion Channel.

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