Judge Russell Engebretson knows precisely which side he is on.
In the summer of 1973, the men at the Brookside mine in Harlan, Kentucky voted to join the United Mine Workers of America. Duke Power Company and its subsidiary, Eastover Mining Company, refused to sign the contract. The miners came out on strike.
Released to considerable acclaim from both critics and audiences, Director Barbara Kopple's Harlan County USA won the 1976 Academy Award for Documentary Feature and was granted a listing on the National Film Registry. It established a benchmark for subsequent documentaries that has rarely been equaled.
Facts of the Case
Harlan, Kentucky was the scene of a series of violent strikes in the 1930s. The area gained a reputation as a rough and dangerous place due to strikes that ended in bloodshed and death; but as of 1973, in spite of past struggles, the miners were still not affiliated with a union. When Barbara Kopple and her film crew arrived in town the miners were on strike because the company refused to honor the majority vote of the workers to join the UMW (United Mine Workers). The ugly confrontation between strikers and the company's gun thugs and scabs was creeping toward a replay of the 1930s clashes.
The film opens with harrowing footage of working conditions in the mines. Amazingly, Kopple and her film crew were allowed to accompany workers into a nearby coalmine and film the miners as they worked. In the following scene, retired coal miner Nimrod Workman sings, a cappella, an equally harrowing tune he wrote (Forty-Two Years) about his experiences in the mine. Near the beginning of the film, each scene builds upon the last with a skillful mix of interviews and archival photographs. In one early scene, an elderly Harlan resident recounts his experiences in the mine as a child where he was beaten with a stick by a supervisor if he did not properly separate pieces of slate from the coal. His interview is intercut with still photographs of hundreds of children dressed in coveralls, their faces blackened with coal dust.
As the movie progresses, the emphasis shifts from historical background to the residents and their present-day fight for union representation. A unique aspect of the Harlan county strike was the participation of women on the picket lines. The documentary devotes a fair amount of time to the women of Harlan (no women worked in the coalmines in the early 1970s) who organized peaceful picket protests as well as acts of civil disobedience.
The movie culminates with attacks on picketers (including Barbara Koppel as she filmed the event), the killing of a striker, and the company's surrender to the demands of the workers.
When Barbara Koppel and her crew arrived in the eastern Kentucky town of Harlan, their somewhat nebulous plans to document a history of labor struggle were brought into sharp focus by the bitter fight between workers and management. It was labor history in the making, and Koppel had arrived at just the propitious moment to catch it on film—but first she had to overcome some obstacles.
Her first meeting with the picket line strikers was not ideal. The workers were suspicious and close-mouthed until they felt sure she was not employed by the company or trying to cast them in a bad light. In the audio commentary, Kopple admits that she and her young crew were in the midst of a much more dangerous situation than they realized. The citizenry were armed to the teeth with guns and rifles, and the threat of violence was ever present. The strikers began to warm up to the crew when an early morning car accident forced them to walk two miles with their heavy equipment to reach the site of the picket line. Evidently, that kind of tough determination endeared them to the striking townsfolk.
The film, while sympathetic to organized labor, does not picture the UMW as a knight in shining armor. One segment of the movie portrays the fight to wrest control of the UMW from president Tony Boyle's corrupt leadership, which was working hand-in-hand with the coal companies (Boyle once described union policy, "The UMW will not abridge the rights of mine operators in running the mines. We follow the judgment of the coal operators, right or wrong.") The documentary shows, by way of newscast film clips, how Tony Boyle was tried and convicted for giving the orders to assassinate his rival candidate, Joseph Yablonski. The reformist Yablonski, along with his wife and daughter, were murdered in their Clarkesville, Pennsylvania home in 1970. The film also briefly covers the final ouster of Boyle by reform candidate Arnold Miller.
The bulk of the documentary, however, centers on the miners and their families. One scene focuses on a few of the miners as they undergo tests for pneumoconiosis—black lung—and underscores the deadly nature of coal mining and the workers' attitudes, which might be seen as pragmatic or resigned, depending on your point of view. Other segments convey the tedium of picketing: miners with nothing to do but whittle on sticks with their pocketknives and huddle around fires built in rusty barrels. The tedium is punctuated by threats from gun thugs, intimidation by state police, and occasional rowdy actions. One such action was the blockade of a highway to prevent scabs from reaching the mine. The tension and threat of violence is palpable when the picketers insist that the sheriff serve a warrant on the company's number one gun thug, while the sheriff, who is sympathetic to the strikers but stuck between a rock and a hard place, insists that the picketers must clear the road. In another tense scene, heavily armed strikers stage a face-off with company thugs. The presence of the film crew may have averted a deadly outcome between the strikers and scabs. As Barbara Kopple commented, no one wants to commit bloody murder and have it all caught on Technicolor film.
The documentary captures the tension and charged atmosphere with a slickly edited combination of interviews with the locals, fly-on-the-wall camera work that includes town meetings and picket line confrontations, and clips of newsreels (Kopple mentions in the commentary that she rescued the footage from makeshift storage places from all over the county; many of the newsreels were on the verge of being thrown out). All these elements are artfully arranged to create a story arc that hooks the viewer from the first frames until the final credits. The end result is a documentary that is far more compelling than a fictional drama.
The digital transfer makes this documentary look and sound like it was filmed on 35mm stock a day or two ago. To paraphrase from the 22-page booklet that comes with the DVD: "The new high-definition digital transfer (approved by Barbara Koppel) was created on a Spirit Datacine from the Academy-restored 35mm blowup of the film struck from the duplicate negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System. The dual-layer DVD was encoded at the highest possible bit rate for the quantity of material included. The soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the Academy's original 3-track magnetic print, and audio restoration tools were used to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle." Believe me, that is not hype. The transfer is startlingly clear and colorful; the pristine monophonic audio sounds better than many Dolby stereo transfers I have heard.
There are no mere "extras" in the Criterion Collection; instead we are treated to a classy package of "supplements." Whatever nomenclature Criterion chooses to use, this is a fine set of featurettes and interviews to complement the main event. The aforementioned booklet, printed in a black and brown duotone, contains a detailed and informative essay by Paul Arthur about the film and its creators. There is also a five-page essay by bluegrass musician Jon Weisbeger that explores the film's marvelous indigenous folk music, most of which was sung and played by local musicians. He writes about one of the musical highpoints in the film, when Depression-era union activist Martha Reece sang her Which Side Are You On? at a national union gathering. According to Weisberger, "It was written in the heat of the moment, when antiunion gun thugs ransacked her house during a 1931 strike, and it quickly became an anthem for labor activists, not just in the coal fields but across the country and around the world."
On the disc, there is an excellent 21-minute feature on the making of Harlan County USA that is a mini-documentary all in itself. It includes new interviews with Barbara Kopple, cinematographers Hart Perry and Kevin Keating, associate director Anne Lewis, and three people featured in the film. There are also six never-before-seen outtakes culled from the hundreds of hours of footage archived at the University of Kentucky; an interview with singer Hazel Dickens who was commissioned to write music for the film; a short interview with John Sayles (his "Coal Wars" film Matewan, set in 1920s West Virginia, is highly recommended if you can find the Canadian Seville DVD—not the execrable Artisan transfer); and a 14-minute segment of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival that honored Harlan County USA on its thirtieth anniversary. The new audio commentary with Koppel and director of editing Nancy Baker is an excellent recounting of behind-the-scenes events. Altogether, it is a well-rounded, thoughtful set of features that will enhance one's enjoyment of the movie on later viewings.
I have a more or less standard routine for documentaries I'm slated to review. I watch the DVD on a 32-inch CRT television—notebook in lap and remote control close at hand. The viewing process involves quickly scribbled notes between numerous pauses and replays. While watching this film I did not pick up the remote or write a single line—not even once. I was simply mesmerized by what I was seeing on the screen: the plight of the workers, the grinding poverty, the desperate struggle for decent wages and benefits, the brutal and terrifying working conditions in the coal mine. Through the use of wonderful source material and the alchemy of expert edits, a masterful film was created whose sum is greater than its parts. You could view the movie from a Socialist perspective as the struggle of the worker to wrest a few crumbs from the owners; but there is no need to invoke Marx to see how company reps and owners treat the miners and their families like their personal chattel. Harlan County USA is as relevant today, perhaps more so, than it was three decades ago.
I felt a need to give this documentary a perfect score. Although nothing on our earthbound vale of tears is truly perfect, the spectacular clean up and transfer by Criterion combined with perhaps the finest documentary ever shot is as close to a perfect DVD viewing experience as I could have hoped for.
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• The Making of Harlan County USA
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