by Peter Biskind
Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 3-4
HARLAN COUNTY, USA, Barbara Kopple’s feature length film about a coal miners’ strike in Kentucky, is the best U.S. documentary in a long time. The film has its faults. Its editing is ragged; its narrative structure is confusing and begins to unravel towards the end. But its faults are the consequence of its virtues: an energy, immediacy, and passion rarely seen in a U.S. documentary. The film’s power comes from Kopple’s intimate involvement with the people she filmed, the risks she took, the places—jails, courtrooms, stockholder’s meetings—into which she forced her camera. Its strength lies not in its beauty, nor even in its politics, but in the moral authority that is inscribed in every frame.
There is no bloodier chapter in the history of U.S. labor than the struggle of coal miners, and some of the most violent episodes within this chapter occurred in Harlan County, Kentucky. The people who live there remember it as “bloody Harlan,” the site of fierce battles between miners and coal companies that culminated on May 4, 1931, in a shootout that left a large number of dead and wounded. The song that fixed this struggle forever in the folklore of U.S. labor—“Which Side are You On?”—plays an important role in the film, both as a constant reminder of the historical continuity of the miners’ fight, and as a commentary, of sorts, on the kind of partisan filmmaking practiced by Kopple and her crew.
Things haven't improved much in Harlan County since the thirties. The statistics tell a grim story. Its population, now 40,000, has declined by 36 percent since 1960. More than 24 babies out of every thousand die before reaching the age of one. If they do live long enough to enter school, they will be poorly educated. The expenditure per child on public school is one half the national average. Only 23 percent of those over the age of 25 have finished high school. Whether they have or not, they are likely to live their lives in poverty. The median family income in Harlan County is $4,600. People have only a 50-50 chance of living in a home with plumbing. Many will not find work. If they do, it will probably be in the mines, where they will die young—most likely of black lung disease.
HARLAN COUNTY, USA documents a strike at the Brookside mine in Harlan County. The Brookside mine is run by the Eastover Mining Company. Until the strike began, the miners belonged to a company union, the Southern Labor Union, whose members were drawn from mines throughout Eastern Kentucky. Contracts varied from mine to mine, with pay scales ranging from $17 to $32 a day, as compared to $45 per day for miners represented by the United Mine Workers of America. Medical and retirement benefits were minimal and unreliable. More important, union officials didn't give a damn about the rank and file. Bill Doan, a miner, told the Citizens Public Inquiry into the Brookside Strike,
Conditions at Brookside were particularly bad. In 1971, according to government figures, the accident rate in the mine was three times the national average. There was no safety committee at Brookside, as required by law. The phones in the mine rarely worked. If a man was injured, it took an hour or more to carry him out on the back of a man doubled up in a crouch under the roof of the mine, which was four feet, high. You'd be lucky if the roof didn't fall in on you.
Accidents were frequent and serious. Darrell Deaton, a miner, told the Citizens Inquiry,
In June, 1973, the miners at Brookside had had enough. They voted 113 to 55 to affiliate with the United Mine Workers. Negotiations with Eastover president Norman Yarborough quickly broke down. On June 30, the miners walked out, beginning a strike that was to last 13 months. It is here that the film begins.
HARLAN COUNTY, USA is about the strike. We don't learn much about what it feels like to work beneath the earth or get much sense of the texture of daily life lived in the shadow of the mine. The film is not an ethnographic study of a quaint community of mining folk. What we do get are images of struggle: picket lines, meetings, face-to-face interviews with UMW militants—which is just about everybody. The film is punctuated by funerals, which become occasions for the miners to express and reaffirm their solidarity with the bereaved and one another. Unlike the Pare Lorentz documentaries of the 1930s or the work of photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, the film rarely aestheticizes the miners. The one or two shots that do remind us of the iconography of the 1930s—the thin, pinched faces, sunken cheeks, round eyes of men who have worked long and hard for too little to eat, who have seen too little of the sun and known too little joy—merely serve to remind us how far we are from that frozen world of dignified poverty. There are no artfully composed shots in HARLAN COUNTY, USA, none of the silhouettes-against-the-horizon that mar SALT OF THE EARTH. The film’s poetry is not one of image but of action, clarity, strength; its eloquence is that of the people within it. What visual beauty the film does have comes almost by accident, from the blue-gray early morning mist that shrouds the pickets gathered by the roadside to block scabs imported by the company to break the strike.
The miners’ demands are simple. They want their own safety committee, elected by themselves, to monitor the federal inspections, which, they say, are frauds. They want the standard UMW average daily wage of $45 computed from “portal to portal,” from the time they enter the mine until the time they leave it. Eastover had been in the habit of paying them only for the time spent at the coal face. They want Eastover to pay the standard UMW rate of 75 cents a ton, which will go into medical and retirement benefits. This would cost Eastover $400,000 a year, and Norman Yarborough would rather let the miners fall over dead on the job than retire to a comfortable old age.
The film follows the chronology of the strike, taking time out for two digressions. One deals with the battle within the UMW between the corrupt leadership faction, led by Tony Boyle, and insurgent reformers, led by Jock Yablonsky. Yablonsky and his family are murdered on Boyle’s orders, but the election is eventually won by the Miners for Democracy candidate, Arnold Miller. The story of Boyle’s defeat is told swiftly, in a few dramatic images. In one scene, Boyle, supremely confident of victory, stares out from under satanically arched eyebrows, telling his audience that his ambition is to be president of the UMW until he reaches the age of 100. In another, Boyle, wrapped in a blanket, is wheeled off to prison, a pathetic invalid, his arrogance lost in the wreck of age and illness. The other digression concerns black lung disease. A doctor holds up a blackened lung, removed from a miner; it crumbles between his fingers like ash. Cut to the company spokesman intoning:
As the strike drags on, the miners find out that they confront not only the company but the police and the courts as well. Judge F. Byrd Hogg limits the number of pickets to six, three at each entrance to the mine. The sheriff allows the company’s “gun thugs” to use their weapons, including a machine gun, but prohibits the strikers from using theirs.
The state police beat back the pickets with clubs, making way for the scabs. In classic fashion, one trooper says, when provoked by an angry picket: “I'm only doing my job.” Later, in the courtroom, on trial for something or other, one woman makes clear the relation between the company and the law:
The structure of power that runs Harlan County is no secret, of course, to those who live there. The class struggle is raw and bloody, out front for everyone to see, undisguised by rhetoric. People in Harlan County know which side they're on. Most of them learned it back in the 1930s, or imbibed it with their mothers’ milk. One old-timer recalls his first political lesson:
Extracted from the film, lines like these seem banal. Spoken, in the film, by the miners and their wives, they have an authority born of experience. One woman’s political education came by watching her father die of black lung disease. “I knew that if I ever got the opportunity to get the coal company,” she says quietly, “I would.”
The word “union” has the emotional resonance for the people of Harlan County that it had during the heroic days of the CIO. Kopple asks the 16-year-old widow of a miner shot dead by a scab why her husband went out on the picket line. “He was a union man,” she says, and that answer is more than sufficient. Much of this tradition is transmitted by the music that permeates the lives of the miners and fills the film. One of the high points comes with the appearance of Florence Reese to sing, in a voice hoarse with age, “Which Side Are You On,” the song she wrote in the 1930s. “The men know they've got nothing to lose but their chains,” she says, “and they've got the union to gain.”
If anything, Kopple uses the music too liberally, flooding the sound track with ballads and union songs. I found myself wishing she had allowed the people their moments of silence, of muteness, especially during the first funeral, and had not been in such a hurry to elevate their experience to the level of myth. On the other hand, Kopple has been mercifully restrained in her use of historical stock footage. During the 1960’s the New Left had little use for history; now filmmakers are throwing it around as if it were going out of style. Unexamined and poorly understood, it is often used, with the obligatory accompaniment of a few snatches of song, as an easy way of giving authenticity to a weak analysis of contemporary reality. Kopple doesn't do this because she doesn't have to.
The film focuses on the women. During the course of the struggle, it is they who emerge as the locus of energy and determination. After Judge Hogg limited the number of pickets, the women poured out onto the roads to block the scabs. We see them facing down the state troopers, forcing the sheriff to arrest the mine foreman, dealing with their own flagging spirits, and gearing up for yet one more confrontation. One woman, accused of stealing another’s husband, says: “I'm out for a contract, not a man.” An elderly woman, preparing to go out on the picket line, says:
Some of this material is damaged in the editing. The climactic confrontation with the scabs is carefully set up by a scene the night before in which it is planned. Cut to a close up of a man’s face. It is the following morning, out on the road, men and women fully armed, tensely awaiting the scabs. But what might have been a dramatic cut is thrown away by the low-information close up. We don't know where we are. An establishing shot here would have been much more effective.
This technique of slow disclosure is used so much that it must be intentional. The shooting of one of the miners, Lawrence Jones, is revealed slowly in a close-up pan from his stomach to his head as he lies in the hospital. In another sequence, former Secretary of the Treasury Simon is on camera for 30 seconds or so before he is identified by a title. This kind of editing can be justified as “Brechtian” (it makes us work at deciphering the image), but here, in a traditional narrative film with well developed characters, it is just confusing.
The film’s heavies, the scabs and bosses, play their roles with flare. Here is slick Norman Yarborough, the president of Eastover, discussing the role of women in the strike:
Questioned about his plans to tear down the company-owned shacks that house the miners, he speaks ingenuously and with some pride about “upgrading (his) people into trailers.” At his side sits his lawyer, badly scarred, looking as though he had been struck by lightning. If stock characters like these had appeared in a fiction film, it would have been faulted as heavy-handed propaganda. Yet here they are, big as life, reality’s gift to the camera.
The strike drags on, month after month, with no end in sight. The main stumbling block to a settlement is the no-strike clause demanded by management. The violence escalates, the frustration, the anger. The target is elusive. The Eastover Mining Company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Duke Power, the sixth largest utility in the world. Its assets are worth in excess of $2.5 billion. Duke’s corporate headquarters are in North Carolina. The strikers send a contingent to Wall Street to picket a stockholders meeting. The film shows a hilarious confrontation between a picket and a sympathetic New York cop. They exchange information on salaries, benefits, and the sorry lot of workers everywhere—a cop on Wall Street and a miner in Harlan County.
The turning point comes, apparently.. when one of the strikers, Lawrence Jones, is shot in the face by a scab and killed. The men mobilize to fight. One man says: “Take the shelter you can and lay the lead to ‘em,” but calmer heads prevail. Led by the women, they turn back a convoy of scabs. The company gives in; the strike is over. The union has won, at least for the moment.
Why it has won is not so clear. Bernie Aronson, a UMW organizer, says it is because the strikers brought pressure to bear on Duke Power in New York and North Carolina. There even seems to be some suggestions that the death of Lawrence Jones brought the company to its senses, that the victory was predicated on restraint, the renunciation of force, self denial, and sacrifice. It’s the notion that if the miners suffer long enough; they will be rewarded. A curious message, especially for a film whose strongest image, perhaps, is that of Lois Scott, a strike leader, drawing a .38 concealed in her blouse.
It is after the Brookside strike ends, about four-fifths of the way through, that the film begins to lose its bearings. A succession of walkouts follows: a nationwide UMW strike, a series of wildcats set off by a variety of complaints. The film comes to a couple of false endings, which nicely suggest the sense of never-ending struggle. One militant puts it this way:
But when Kopple tries to deal with the internal politics of the union, her grip becomes less certain. The film critiques Arnold Miller for reaching an agreement with management. But its attack lacks the clear focus that distinguishes the earlier parts of the film, those which lend themselves to uncomplicated judgments. Miller is initially presented in a favorable light. In one of the film’s few editorial slips, he’s shown speaking in a low-angle shot—his silver hair dramatically highlighted. Later, when he settles for a no-strike clause, ironically the issue over which the Brookside strike was fought, he is nicely relegated to the rear of the frame, while the foreground is given over to an angry miner who attacks the settlement. In the next shot, the miner confronts Miller, who, with a glance at the camera, says, “Let’s go outside.” A revealing moment. Another shot shows disgruntled miners making a bonfire out of copies of the agreement.
Miller sells out, so the film seems to say, but maybe not. Kopple adopts a TV news approach, polling miners as they go back to work. The first man says, “I got a good raise. I'm happy.” Another, given more screen time, complains, “Not for an old-timer, we didn't get a good contract.” But his dissatisfaction is not aimed at Miller as much as it is a meditation on the eternal plight of the miner, whose lot has always been hard, is still, and will be so long as there is coal in the ground and men to mine it.
“It was a fight before, and its still a fight ... The coal miner will always be a fighter.”
The end of the film stops short of asking some crucial questions about the limits of rank-and-file reformism. Is it doomed to betray its own best impulses? If so, what are the alternatives? HARLAN COUNTY, USA is at ease with the simplicities of the Brookside strike, close as they are to the flavor of the heroic era of industrial organizing, but less so with the intricate ballet of reform and accommodation played out in today’s unions. It cloaks its failure to deal with the problem of Miller in truisms about the necessity of ongoing struggle. It attempts to convert a weakness into a virtue by transforming a confused ending into a open-ended one.
This having been said, it remains true that HARLAN COUNTY, USA’s strength is not in its analysis but in its passion. In the strike Kopple has found an important and compelling subject, resonant with history and feeling. She has stayed with it and had the good sense to keep out of its way, letting it, after a fashion, speak for itself. HARLAN COUNTY, USA may not have all the answers or even raise all the questions, but it does show us, in case we have forgotten, the strength and power of the people.
1. “Burning Up People to Make Electricity,” Fred Harris, The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1974. Much of my information about the strike is drawn from Harris’s material.