Harlan County, USA (1976)

Director: Barbara Kopple

This academy award winning documentary is itself an important contribution to the 20th century working class movement of the United States.  While it not only played an important role in documenting a violent struggle for unionization in Kentucky, the presence of the film crew was itself cited in helping achieve victory for the miners who were the subject of the film.

As with many cases of violent struggle with attempted unionization in coal mines, Harlan county was one where company thugs, workers, and police all played an all too cliche role. Thugs and police helped (with the interesting exception of the complex role of the Sheriff) maintain the company’s power while the workers had to face legal challenges, attempted murders, and intimidation to form their union. This familiar narrative is not only the result of the same struggle taking on a similar form various times throughout American history, but the film itself inspired other films, for example Matewan. (John Sayles on Harlan County)

The most striking thing about the case of Harlan County is how similar the film’s structure is to that of the various other films/narratives about unionizing efforts in other coal mining areas that date back to the late 19th century. The exception in this case, however, is a demonstration of some serious corruption at the union level. While the story of the drive itself is familiar, one significant difference is that this was not the beginning of the United Mine Workers of America but rather that there had been decades of development for that organization. There is even a case where a rank-and-file candidate runs for the presidency of the union and is murdered by folks connected to what is perceived as the corrupt leadership.

These struggles demonstrate the real problems that go into organizing that is not simply a romanticized version of “the workers vs the bosses” but rather demonstrate the complexities. The “labor aristocracy” is shown to be quite clear in this film and the future of the union is questioned even with the optimistic overtones towards the end of the film and victory of the particular drive. Some of the members remain quite unsatisfied with the contract that they won, for example.

Further reading: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/422-harlan-county-usa-no-neutrals-there

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