Harlan County, USA

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A man crouches and pokes at what first appears to be a wad of chewed-up pink bubble gum on the ground. “That’s what a scab will do to ya, by God,” he says, his voice quavering with emotion. The pink wad is brain tissue from a striker shot in the head by a strikebreaker. That’s one of the harsh realities of Harlan County USA. Barbara Kopple’s documentary camera looks at this forgotten corner of 1970s America, the site of some of the bitterest labor violence in American history. It’s hard to believe that some 40 years after the Depression, there were parts of Appalachia that were hardly better off than they were in the 1930s. The care-worn faces of the miners and their families speak volumes.

They’re the tough, proud faces of people struggling to make a living the way that their parents and grandparents did in generations past. Kopple skillfully weaves archival footage and traditional labor songs through the film to give a historical perspective to the strike against Eastover Mining Company. Above and beyond the labor issues, the film takes a hard look at the living conditions, health issues, and poverty faced by Harlan’s residents, the human toll that goes along with the mining industry. The tense confrontations between Eastover’s slimy security goons and the unionizers are particularly gripping, with the threat of violence hanging thick in the air. Sometimes ugly, always absorbing, this is an important, enlightening social record, one that serves the highest calling of the documentary filmmaker’s art.

This film documents the coal miners’ strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in June, 1973. Eastovers refusal to sign a contract (when the miners joined with the United Mine Workers of America) led to the strike, which lasted more than a year and included violent battles between gun-toting company thugs/scabs and the picketing miners and their supportive women-folk. Director Barbara Kopple puts the strike into perspective by giving us some background on the historical plight of the miners and some history of the UMWA.

Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award–winning film unflinchingly documents a grueling coal miners’ strike in a small Kentucky town. With unprecedented access, Kopple and her crew captured the miners’ sometimes violent struggles with strikebreakers, local police, and company thugs.

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