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Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County, USA tells an extraordinary story about workers’ advocacy. It focuses on a 1973 strike by the miners of Duke Power Company’s Brookside Mine. Full of conversations from the center of action at organizers’ meetings and on picket lines, the documentary gives a vivid picture of the mineworkers’ lives and dreams. (AEL: 4.5/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker
I’ll be haunted by the soundtrack for Harlan County, USA for a long time. A Harlan County resident sings mineworkers’ songs a cappella. Her sweet, plaintive singing style belies the strength and anger in the lyrics: “Which side are you on?”
Through intimate footage taken in mines and hospitals, and through interviews with survivors, we learn that mining conditions in Harlan County, Kentucky, are incredibly dangerous. Miners can be hit or crushed by falling metal, rock, or equipment debris. They can get trapped in mines. Some managers and bosses physically abuse the workers. In the long term, mine workers suffer from severe breathing impairment known as “black lung.” Often, black lung kills them.
The story of a 1968 explosion at Consolidation Coal’s Mannington Mine in West Virginia, which trapped and killed 78 miners, highlights that much of this suffering and loss was preventable. Company policies—meant to increase profit— stretch mine workers thin and make safety measures difficult. Family members of workers who died in the explosion show anger and desperation as they tell their stories.
The danger reminds me of working conditions in the current pandemic. Many people must go to work when they are asked, beholden to their companies’ decisions about what and when it is safe for them. This documentary teaches us about the historical relationship between workers, companies, and local and federal government. It provides context for workers’ strikes. It reminds us that workers have been facing many of the same unfair conditions for decades, but also that advocacy and organization are essential rights that we can’t forget.
Despite all this exhaustion, desperation, and anger, I’m struck by the joy and hope in this documentary. A mother and wife of a mineworker gives her child a bath in a makeshift plastic tub. “When they sign the contract, daddy’s gonna get hot running water and a big old bathtub,” she says cheerily. On the picket lines, mineworkers’ chants are invigorating. As they carry protest signs on city sidewalks, they have friendly conversations with passersby. The mineworkers and their families are constantly raising each other up.
The week of Labor Day, this documentary from decades ago feels like a call of encouragement from workers of an earlier generation. We can grieve for them, but we can also take their reminders about the importance of paying attention to workers’ needs and exercising our right to organize. This movie feels like a call to action, as the singer reminds us to consider, over and over: “Which side are you on?”
Harlan County, USA airs on Turner Classic Movies’s Women Make Film festival on Tuesday, September 15 at 9:15pm EDT.
© Amelie Lasker (9/11/20) FF2 Media
Photos: Mineworkers of Brookside Mine in Kentucky work, picket, and celebrate in 1973 documentary Harlan County, USA.
Photo Credits: Cinema 5 Distributing
Q: Does Harlan County, USA pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Mineworkers’ families feature prominently in the movie, discussing their own concerns, tragedies, and hopes for the strike’s outcome.