Harlan County U.S.A.
Which side are you on? (Cinéma vérité: Part 3 of 4)
In the very beginning, it almost looks fun. Miners riding a long rubber belt, lunch boxes between their arms extended like Superman, on their stomachs into the depths of a coal mine. In a few seconds, the sunlight disappears, faces are smeared with coal, the air looks thick, and machinery whirs and grinds, aiming to extract the black gold under the mountain. On the surface, it’s relatively quiet as the shale-like coal rides the rubber slide, reversing out of the earth.
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) is almost fifty years old, but it seems it could’ve been made within the past few years. Exploited workers, struggling organized labor, an aging form of energy, people playing basketball in the gravel, kids, grandparents, healthcare, and the “heartland” of America. This movie tells the story of coal workers striking for basic healthcare and better wages from their employers.
It’s also got this handsome devil:
John L. Lewis, born in 1880, was the president of the United Mine Workers from 1920 to 1960. Like most historical figures, it’s not all roses; he was a celebrated leader for organized labor, a Republican who helped get FDR elected, but he broke with FDR because he didn’t want to fight the nazis. The point is that if you’re going to dig into history, you’re digging into infinite shades of gray.
This brings us back to Harlan County U.S.A., a film that’s as relevant today as ever, and a not-eligible-for-nomination-but-should-have-been candidate for best film score of 1976. It would’ve been up against Taxi Driver (1976), The Omen (1976), and one of my least favorite films of all time: The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). In the spectrum of cinéma vérité, this is more of a straight documentary in a similar style to Salesman (1969). Cameras follow people around with little interference from the crew. (As little interference as possible given that these people know they’re being filmed.) We occasionally get an “interview” in the form of a subject speaking directly to the camera about what’s going on, but we rarely hear from the “interviewer.” Only a few times in the film, when a question is essential, does filmmaker Barbara Kopple interject with one. For example: “Are you happy with your contract?” Directed at a man with an unreadable face. Lastly, some of these “interviews” are nothing more than folk songs, giving us a stunning view into the importance of music in working culture. The view into the songs of Harlan County feels like a view into a hundred years ago. Further, a hundred years from now, I expect it will only be considered more of a treasure, thanks to having been committed to film.
Harlan County. According to one of the interviewees, it works like this: It’s a feudal system. There are three types of people in Harlan County—a rich class of people, the coal miners, and then people on relief. The rich class wants to keep it that way, which they do by ensuring no other industries can enter the county to create a competitive wage. Not just competing coal mines: industries. It’s vital to the coal trade that these workers have no viable alternatives to earning a living. It’s incredible to watch this film and the people within, especially with the wisdom of retrospect. In one scene, a lawyer for the coal companies argues that there is no evidence that the inhalation of coal dust impacts pulmonary function. In another, a man drives by and flashes a gun that he had just been caught by cameras firing in the direction of strikers up the road. The screaming and gunshots are as real as it gets. You might wonder at some point why these people don’t just leave. Why stay in a place like this? The film never asks them, and maybe it shouldn’t do.
Harlan County U.S.A. feels timeless. It could be about workers at any time, anywhere. What future events will it apply to? Any industry that requires human resources (and it will be a long time before industries requiring human resources go away) and generates massive amounts of profit could take a lesson from this film. For the viewers with a strong capitalist streak, the film will make you wonder: what is owed to workers? Where is the balance, and how much is an owner/operator entitled to? Not legally, morally. How do we strike a fair balance in the long term? In Harlan County, the victories feel brief. As soon as they’ve won, something else is lost, and the fight continues.
Harlan County U.S.A.
Produced and Directed by Barbara Kopple
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Available streaming on Criterion Channel, Max, and Amazon Prime.
You’ll like this if you like: Black Panthers (1968), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), or Bowling for Columbine (2003)