A Trip to Harlan County, USA

In my review for Hillbilly Elegy a few months back, I was very harsh. Fairly so, but harsh in a way I have rarely been towards even some of the worst films I have come across. It was a personal piece more than a typical review, and I am not afraid to admit that. But the more I looked back on that review, the more I was dissatisfied with the fact that I only spoke for the bad accounts of Appalachia. I felt some kind of duty as a representative of the place to defend it, but it would be unfair of me to only tear down false prophets without looking into what I find is suitable or even great representation. In my years since leaving the place where I grew up I struggled to find connections to it anywhere else in the world. They always say there’s no place like home, but I truly don’t think there’s any place like eastern Kentucky. Between elections and natural disasters I have seen plenty of people that hold disdain for red states on the basis of that very distinction. But it’s important for people to realize that all kinds of people live in these states, hindered by limited access to anything and everything that residential areas take for granted. To really understand the unique struggles of Coal Country, though, we must dig deeper.

I had known about the documentary Harlan County, USA for some time, but finally seeing it completely revitalized me. Winner of the Best Documentary Academy Award in 1976 (an incredible year at the Oscars), it’s absolutely one of the most important American documentaries, a must-see for anyone with any investment in the medium of film and what it should do for us as a society. The film follows the 1973 Brookside Strike, an effort by Harlan coal miners and their wives against the Duke Power Company for higher wages and safer working conditions. Rather than using any narration to tell the story, director Barbara Kopple lets the families speak entirely for themselves, in a cinema vérité approach to filmmaking that is stunning to behold in its bare simplicity. “Dark as a Dungeon,” a work song popularized by Johnny Cash in his legendary Folsom Prison concert, opens the film while we see miners entering and leaving work. We hear several work songs like these throughout the film, some even written by the townspeople of Harlan. It is a method of immortalizing the struggle of the working man, one we see all over the world yet seems to never be fully acknowledged. We hear multiple accounts of sickness and death, workplace abuse, and lost family members. In a pivotal scene, miners take to the streets of New York, holding up signs by the Stock Exchange. An extended conversation between a miner in his stained work clothes and an office worker in his clean cut suit goes on for quite a while. It is casual but revelatory as white collar society is invaded by the bluest collars around. The two men are building bridges, the stock worker clearly showing sympathy for the man and what he is fighting for. It is made clear then that the biggest fight that the miners have is for the public eye.

When Kopple and her cameraman are on the picket lines, a new side of the film rears its head. It is revealed that Duke Power has the police force and nearly every other institution in their pockets, and as the police and scabs brandish their guns, we see the true horror of organizing against the man. At one point Kopple and her cameraman are even beaten by those opposing the strike. Kopple would later point out that her crew’s presence likely kept violence from escalating, as they would keep cameras pointed at the hostiles even after they had run out of film to keep pressure on them. Today it is a sad example of how little has changed, in regards to both the treatment of workers and the police brutality endured by anyone fighting against the system for the betterment of their lives.

In the decades since the release of Harlan County, USA, things have gotten even quieter in the Appalachian mountains in regards to justice for miners. The coal industry is on its last leg and we are still trying to figure out how to find new work for former miners. There has been a lot of talk, but very little work. If the film proves anything it is that there will not be change until the people make it so. It is a simple film that says a lot about the flawed idea of the American Dream. America deserves change, and if even a little can happen in Harlan it can happen anywhere.


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