Documentary Movie Review: Harlan County, USA (1976) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “H” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “H” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Harvard Beats Yale 29 to 29HeimaHelveticaHieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, High SchoolHillsboroughThe Historic Pubs of Dublin, and The Hollywood Librarian.

Title: Harlan County, USA
Release Date: October 15, 1976
Director: Barbara Kopple
Production Company: Cabin Creek Films
Summary/Review:

I have an affinity for coal miners because my grandfather and his father and brothers all worked for mining companies in Pennsylvania.  My grandfather never went down in the mines but worked as a coal breaker which made him all the more vulnerable to inhaling dust and coal particles.  Coal miners, whether below the ground or in the processing facilities, face a great risk of instant death and horrible injuries. Those who make it through okay will inevitably suffer respirator problems like black lung.  And yet the work of a coal miner could also offer great dignity and pride.

In the 1970s in Harlan County, Kentucky, over 180 coal miners from the Brookside Mine joined the United Mine Workers of America and went on strike against the Duke Power Company.  Young filmmaker Barbara Kopple (who later directed Miss Sharon Jones!) filmed the strike over the course of its 11 months, including planning meetings, pickets, and conflicts with company’s “gun thugs” that lead to violence. The protests spread to New York where UMWA picketers inform Wall Street investors about Duke Power’s mistreatment of workers, and one of them talks with a progressive New York City cop. A particularly strong part of this film is the organization of Harlan County’s women, mostly miners’ wives, who play a significant role in the strike. Lois Scott stands out as a women who uses encouragement and shame to keep people motivated on the end goal of the strike.

In addition to the linear narrative of the strike, Kopple also includes historical footage from Harlan County coal mines and earlier labor conflicts.  The struggle of miners in Appalachia in general is seen in coverage of the Farmington Mine explosion in West Virginia in 1968 that left 78 miners dead.  There was conflict even within the UMWA.  In the 1960s, Tony Boyle became president of the union, but many rank-and-file miners saw him as too cozy with mine owners.  He was challenged by Jock Yablonski in 1969, and despite winning reelection had Yablonski and several of his family murdered a month later. At the time of the Harlan County strike, Boyle had been replaced by a former miner, Arnold Miller, and was convicted for the murder of the Yablonski.

Apart from some informative text on the screen, this movie has no narration.  Instead the miners tell their story and the stories of those who came before them.  The story is also told through song, as the soundtrack features several folk songs including many specifically about Harlan County.  At one point, Florence Reece appears to sing a new version of her famous song “Which Side Are You On?” which she originally wrote for the Harlan County War in 1931.

This is a beautiful, moving, and enraging movie that tells a story that’s all too familiar through our nation’s history.

Rating: *****

4 thoughts on “Documentary Movie Review: Harlan County, USA (1976) #atozchallenge

  1. That’s does sound like a fascinating documentary! I am very interested in labour history; I have worked for many years in Sunshine, a Melbourne suburb where the Harvester Decision was made, to entitle factory workers to a basic wage. It is the first place in the world where that happened, and is still a working class suburb.

    Is this film available on DVD or streaming? YouTube?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw it and thought it was well-done. Have you ever watched the tv series, “Justified?” It’s about Harlan county and federal marshalls who solve crimes in the area. It’s fictionalized but it does give some attention to the coal mines, company tactics to buy land from the people, and the life of miner and their family.

    Liked by 1 person

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