Criterion Commentaries: “Harlan County U.S.A.”
“There is something that a good documentary does, which is no matter who the film-maker is and what their – what they bring to it, the most important thing they do is open you up into a window into other peoples’ lifes [sic], who you may never meet. In fact, you probably will never meet them. And if they do it well, you feel like you’ve met some people and you’ve shared something of their lives, and who they are, that just would not happen any other way. And I think, just as a film to see, that Harlan County still does that.” – John Sayles (Supplement: “John Sayles on the Film”)
What makes Harlan County U.S.A. so powerful is that it opens us up into a window into the lives of these resilient men and women. In one of the film’s supplements, a recording from a 2005 Sundance Film Festival panel moderated by Roger Ebert, Director of editing Nancy Baker told an audience how she attended a screening of the film in Harlan County, and how she felt among friends, as though she knew all the people there after having sifted through so much footage for so long…though, of course, no one in Harlan County had ever seen her before! Even just watching the film, without poring over it day in and day out for months on end, there is a sort of instant familiarity. Their concerns are legitimate and reasonable, and it’s easy to root for them. Though, of course, with a guy like Basil Collins to root against, it’s even easier to choose the side of the strikers – and you better commit to a side, because “there’s no neutral in Harlan County.”
It’s a classic David vs. Goliath story, of humble, hard-working miners fighting not to get out of work, but to get safe conditions and better, fairer pay for their work. With David Morris singing Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon”, we open with footage of mining work. It is dark, and it is cramped. It is truly nightmarish, particularly for anyone with claustrophobia. Beyond being uncomfortable (inhospitable, even), mining is dangerous.
“A lot of people don’t understand that that electricity burning over there takes somebody dying every day for it.” – Jerry Johnson
The documentarian faces unique challenges, and chief among these is that the subjects are not always onboard with the production in the first place. Eastern Kentucky is renowned for its resistance to outsiders and suspicious of anyone who seems a little too interested in their activities. In an anecdote shared in the commentary and in an appearance at Sundance, director Barbara Kopple recalled that when she first approached the picket line, the women there gave her fake names like Martha Washington and Florence Nightingale. It wasn’t until after the station wagon her crew was using had an accident during a rainy morning and they hiked two miles with the camera equipment to film the picket line that the strikers opened up to her.
Not only did she have to put in the “porch time” to earn the trust of the strikers, she also had to prove herself to musician David Morris. Kopple shares the story in her commentary with Nancy Baker: Initially concerned that Kopple had no understanding of, or respect for, the songs and culture she wanted to put on film, he refused to participate. She challenged him to let her sit in with his band on the fiddle. Though she was out of her depth with Morris, her earnestness won him over and he ended up performing four of the fourteen songs in the film.
This sense of having to fight for her film parallels the fights in it. That isn’t to say that making a documentary about coal miners is as hard as mining coal; it’s not, and Kopple would be the first to say so. But there is a clear sense of commitment to the project in spite of its demanding nature that won over her subjects, and that comes across in the film, too. Eschewing any semblance of objectivity, Kopple’s ambition was to tell the story of the miners on strike. That often entailed inserting herself and her crew into the events, though not always by choice. Witness strikebreaker Basil Collins – as loathsome a screen villain as fiction ever invented – targeting her during a drive-by shooting caught on camera. When Sheriff Billy G. Williams is compelled to serve an arrest warrant on Collins, it’s clear that just as the strikers are cheering and Kopple hopes we cheer, too, so is she.
“And also, I think, it was the times were really…interesting times, and people felt like they could make a real change in the world, and that you wanted what you did for a living to be a part of that. And what you [Kopple] were offering was a possibility of working for a film that would conceivably change the way peopls’ lives were, and how they worked, and what kind of health policy they’d have. Just that their qualities [sic] of life could be really, really different and you just don’t get a chance to do that very often.” – Nancy Baker, Director of Editing, commentary track (10:09)
In another cheer-worthy moment, miner Bill Doan addresses Carl Horn at the Duke Energy 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, we’ve had dynamite throw’d at us, 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.”
It’s the working man’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” but with manners.
Those manners contrast sharply with the intimidation tactics of the mine ownership. What Barbara Kopple caught on camera that was most damning was the persistent threat and acts of violence perpetuated by the union-breaking thugs led by Basil Collins. Viewers who thought that such blatant means of terror intimidation belonged in the past were understandably shocked to see Collins and his goons all brandishing guns – and appalled to see them actually used. Union organizer John Cox described the volatile climate by saying, “Yeah, it’s a way of life. Everyone carries a gun here. You don’t see too many fistfights. It’s all who draws first…and shoots.” (Outtakes: Union organizers, 1:52)
Surprisingly, the driving force of the strike comes into this wild west-style cesspool of violence in the form of Lois Scott. Watching Scott and the other women dig in their heels and bolster the picket line can be surprising for anyone whose notions are that the strike was strictly between miners and ownership. The women make clear their collective vested interests in the strike on economic grounds as well as the personal. Who could stand by and watch her father succumb to black lung disease, knowing her husband was expected to follow suit, with her son after him? It is no coincidence that the Brookside strike was supported so ardently by the women of Harlan County and that they won.
“This is part of the women’s liberation movement, after all, in a sense, you know? Um, I mean women were burning their bras, and then you have this image of Lois Scott pulling a pistol out of her bra. And there’s something – there’s some correlation there that I haven’t quite figured out yet. But, you know, which is more liberation: the act of burning you bra, or the act of pulling a gun out of it?” – Anne Lewis, associate producer (The Making of Harlan County U.S.A., 13:30)
Susie Bright found that correlation. She named Harlan County U.S.A. fifth on her Top 10 Criterions list, noting: “The most charismatic feminist icon of those years for me wasn’t Gloria Steinem—it was Lois Scott, a Brookside strike leader, drawing out a .38 from under her blouse, concealed in her bra.”
Harlan County U.S.A. is also heartbreaking. We see black lung patients receiving what little treatment 1973 had to offer, in a compelling segment in which leading expert Dr. Donald Rasmussen takes to task the entire American coal industry for its resistance to doing anything meaningful to prevent the disease. There’s the contract killing of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) leader Joseph “Jock” Yablonksi, along with his wife and daughter, arranged by UMWA president William Anthony “Tony” Boyle. Especially moving is footage of Yablonski’s funeral procession. Lastly, of course, is the gruesome slaying of striking miner Lawrence Jones by scab Bill Bruner. Jones left behind a 16 year old widow and a five month old daughter.
Any discussion of Harlan County U.S.A. must include the subject of music. Though Florence Reece’s voice had diminished by the time of her appearance at the 1972 Miners for Democracy meeting, her resolve does not waver. The applicability of her lyrics, written amid the bloodshed of the volatile 1930 strike, to the then-contemporary strike serves as a chilling reminder how viciously coal owners will fight to deny safe working conditions and equitable pay to the very workers whose hard labor makes possible their luxuries. We are now farther removed from the Brookside strike of 1973 than it was from the strike that prompted Reece to write “Which Side Are You On?” Watching Harlan County U.S.A. today engenders respect for the sacrifice of those who stood on those, and other, picket lines over the years. Jon Weisberger wrote a terrific essay for The Criterion Collection DVD release, but for whatever reason, it is not presently available to read on Criterion.com.
The Criterion Collection supplements all contribute to a broader contextual understanding of the film and its participants. Of particular interest is an outtake conversation with Jerry Johnson and Bessie Lou Cornett, in which the two recount their respective experiences being branded communists. What is most striking is Bessie’s earnest declaration that she didn’t know what communism even was, but that if it aligned with her views about proper working conditions, then she wanted to know more about it. Karl Marx would have been proud to know that proletarians were, in fact, reaching some of his conclusions all on their own.
It’s fascinating in part because both challenge the idea not just that unionizing doesn’t equal being a full-fledged communist, but also the notion that “communist” should even be the dirty word their detractors tried to stick to them. This whole exchange falls somewhere between naïve and bold, depending on your political leanings. Excising it from the film released in 1973 was probably the right decision, but given that “communist” and “socialist” are still very charged accusations forty years later, it certainly merits consideration.
Folks like David Morris are right to be guarded against those who would co-opt their lives for the sake of gawking entertainment. Barbara Kopple’s presentation of the people of Harlan County stands as a testament to the power of film, or even of entertainment at large, to help us to connect not in the name of reductive, “we’re all the same” idealism, but to record and present the stories that deserve to be told. At the very least, after Harlan County U.S.A. played in theaters and won an Academy Award, the public consciousness could no longer claim ignorance to the plight of miners. Kopple had shown the world all the ugliness that was never going to make it onto the 6:00 news. It isn’t for me to say whether she did right by the strikers, but all indications are that they feel she did. It is the perfect marriage of documentarian and subject, using the power of the film medium to its greatest effect.