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Film / Harlan County U.S.A.

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Women of Harlan County, not backing down.
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Harlan County U.S.A. is a 1976 documentary film produced and directed by Barbara Kopple.

The film, done in "cinéma vérité" style, documents a violent year-long coal miners' strike in 1972-1973. Workers at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky went on strike in June 1972 after the Eastover Coal Company, and its owner the Duke Power conglomerate, refused to recognize the miners' union contract affiliating them with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Eastover and Duke Power insisted on a no-strike clause in the contract, which the workers at the Brookside Mine refused to agree to, fearing a loss of leverage in the future.

The result was a violent, traumatic year-long strike, in Harlan County, a place that was already called "Bloody Harlan" after a violent, traumatic miners' strike in 1931. In the film, workers earning poverty-level wages and no benefits, living in dilapidated trailers with no running water, strike for better working conditions and benefits. Duke Power responds by getting the local police to keep the road to the mine open so scabs (strikebreakers) can enter, and hiring gun-toting thugs to intimidate strikeworkers. In one scene Kopple, then 26 years old, and her cameraman are shot at and the cameraman is assaulted by a Duke Power thug. Workers respond to these intimidation tactics by protesting at Duke Power shareholders' meetings and picketing outside of the New York Stock Exchange. Finally, after a striking miner is shot and killed, leaving his 16-year-old wife and newborn child widowed and orphaned respectively, Duke Power folds and agrees to the contract.

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Won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. A decade later, Kopple followed this film up with American Dream, another Academy Award-winning documentary about a labor strike.

See also Justified, the well-known fictional TV series set in Harlan County.


Tropes:

  • Action Prologue: The film opens with Brookside Mine workers blasting coal out of the rock, before explaining what was going on in 1972-73 with the strike.
  • Amazon Brigade: The fearless, utterly badass women of Harlan County, who have lost fathers, husbands, and sons to black lung disease and have suffered along with their men. They know exactly what's at stake and are consistently seen joining the picket line along with the miners themselves. Barbara Kopple, being a woman herself, seems to have taken a special interest in the women of Harlan County.
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  • Anachronic Order: Scenes showing the more-or-less linear process of the strike are intercut with scenes jumping back and forth to the 1931 "Bloody Harlan" strike, as well as the 1969 UMWA election and the murder of challenger Joseph Yablonski on the orders of corrupt union boss Tony Boyle, as well as the conviction of Boyle in 1974 that took place after the strike.
  • Black and White Morality: The miners are the good guys, the fat cats from Duke Power and the goons like Basil Collins are bad guys, and the film is not afraid of taking a stand. Florence Reece's song "Which Side Are You On?", written for the 1931 strike, pretty much sums things up.
  • Camera Abuse: A strikebreaker stalks up to Kopple's cameraman and knocks the camera to the ground.
  • Cool Old Guy: Various crotchety old miners, including the old man at the beginning who sings a union song, then tells a story about how a mine foreman told him to get a mule out of the way of falling rock, but said the man didn't need to move, because a mule was harder to replace than a miner.
  • Documentary: A quite involving one of the 1972-73 Brookside Mine strike.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Eventually, after all that suffering and violence and after a year of striking, the miners earn their contract. In reality the miners' union was eventually destroyed; see Happily Ever Before below.
  • Happily Ever Before: The film ends with the Brookside strikers winning recognition of their local union, although the coda makes clear that further labor disturbance is ongoing. In Real Life, the mining corporations eventually succeeded in destroying the UMWA's influence in Kentucky. As of 2015, there are no unionized mine workers in the state, and economic pressures and environmental regulations have greatly reduced the numbers of mine workers, period. Additionally, the people of Harlan County, once pro-union radicals, now vote strongly Republican, whose policies heavily favor the coal executives over their workers.
  • Karma Houdini: As a miner points out towards the end of the film, apparently everyone knows who killed the striking miner, but local law enforcement shows no interest in an investigation.
  • Montage: Some pointed use of montage in the film. In one instance, a Duke Power shill mouths talking points about improving the living conditions of the workers. This is followed by a cut to the garbage-strewn neighborhood the miners live in, with shots of their dilapidated shacks and the outhouses they have to use because they lack running water. In another instance, a defiant Tony Boyle is wisecracking immediately after being arrested for the 1969 murder of Joseph Yablonski and his family. This scene is followed by a cut to a clip of a withered, wheelchair-bound Boyle being carried into court in 1974 following his murder conviction.
  • Mooks: First there are the police. They profess to be only keeping order, but seem to be quite interested in helping Duke Power by clearing picketers from the road, while they are not so interested in investigating the murder of a striking miner. Then there is a more unambiguous example of Mooks in the persons of the strikebreakers, club-wielding and gun-toting thugs, who assault and shoot at the strikers, and eventually murder one. They also shoot at and assault Barbara Kopple and her cameraman. The miners call them "gun thugs." Their leader is Basil Collins, a gun-toting villain who would be a cliche out of Evil Redneck central casting if he hadn't been real. Collins starts flinging the N-word at a black miner at one point, apparently to make himself come off as that much more evil. He points a gun directly at the camera in one scene.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Kopple originally set out to document the 1972 election for the presidency of the United Mine Workers, which took place three years after the rigged 1969 election and the murder of challenger Joseph Yablonski on incumbent Tony Boyle's orders. While Kopple was filming, the Brookside Mine strike broke out, causing her to shift the focus of her film.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: An immensely satisfying one from miner Bill Doan to Carl Horn of Duke Power at a shareholders' meeting.
    "But I tell you: We in Harlan County have been kicked around, we've been put in jail, we've been shot at, and you don't want us to have nothin'. Well, I tell you, Mr. Horn, I'm gonna be standing right there on that picket line looking at you just as long as it takes. Thank you."
  • Shout-Out: Or maybe Getting Crap Past the Radar. But when union activist Florence Reece says "the men know they have nothing to lose but their chains", how many realized she was quoting Karl Marx?
  • Stock Footage: A fair amount of it, some dating from the 1931 "Bloody Harlan" strike.
  • Talking Heads: People are interviewed for the camera in standard Talking Head fashion. The difference in this instance is that most of the interviews take place as the strike was underway.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Lois Scott pulls a gun from her Compartment during a scene where the miners' wives are talking about the necessity of arming themselves against the "gun thugs".
  • The Voice: Barbara Kopple never appears onscreen, but her voice is heard from time to time, posing questions to striking miners and other locals.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Multiple scenes of the striking miners and their wives arguing about how to proceed. One highlight of the film occurs when one wife accuses another of wanting to take someone else's husband, and the second wife shoots back that the first is an alcoholic.
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