BACK TO HARLAN COUNTY
Dawn on a cold Kentucky morning. Miners gather at a supermarket to prepare for another day of picketing. The strike is in its tenth month. Come sunrise, pickups will plow through human barriers. "Gun thugs" will menace women wielding baseball bats. Machine guns will take aim. This is America, many will remind themselves. This, thanks to a brave filmmaker, was and still is "Harlan County, USA."
No one in Harlan County knew Barbara Kopple when she showed up on the picket line. Rumors said some "hippie crew from New York" was sniffing around the strike. Which side were they on? Kopple soon asked a striker, "Why are you telling people not to talk to me?" Girl, she was told, "you gotta tell people here what you're doin'." Once she told them, once she stayed and stayed, broke, beaten, but embedded in coal country, she came away with the best documentary you'll ever see about labor, class struggle, America.
Four decades have not dimmed "Harlan County, USA." As wars continue to rage over coal, as unions struggle for respect, this penetrating look into the lives of miners and the corruption of corporate coal retains its raw power. So how did a young woman from Westchester County, New York capture the hidden hollows of Harlan County, Kentucky?
Kopple grew up in Scarsdale, the daughter of a textile executive. End of story in some decades, but this was the 1960s. A year at a West Virginia college introduced her to Appalachia but Vietnam shaped her politics. Studying in Boston, she met filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and was soon working on "Gimme Shelter." Then in 1972, she learned of a United Mineworkers election in Kentucky. As she was starting Cabin Creek Films, miners walked off the job in Harlan County.
In Eastern Kentucky, stories of strikes are as old as the hills. Savage "mine wars" came and went, forgotten beyond "Bloody Harlan." Kopple wanted America to remember. With a crew of five, with funds for just a few weeks, she headed for Kentucky. She was twenty-six, making her first film. As the song says, "it's a long way to Harlan," but once there, she hunkered down.
Her cameraman had a pony tail. Her crew wore blue jeans and T-shirts. "They looked poorer than we were," one miner recalled. For three years, Kopple and crew lived with miners, filming even when they ran out of film "because having a camera there kept down violence."
On her first morning in Harlan, shots rang out. The next day, a passing pickup bore a sign -- .38's AIN'T SHIT. “So I knew I was in for a rough time," Kopple recalled. Miners skeptical about the "hippie crew" realized Kopple was risking her life to tell their story. And they opened their homes and their histories.
Kopple's camera takes us into every stage of the strike. We see mothers in shacks bathing toddlers in tin tubs. We meet miners suffering from black lung disease. We go into the mines, snaking through tunnels of anthracite. We enter board meetings, strikers’ meetings, a courtroom, a jail. We get up before dawn to be on the picket line. We witness arguments, explosions, a murder, and a funeral. And we hear the Appalachian sorrows of Hazel Dickens, whose coal mining songs led Kopple to call and request more for the film. (HEAR FOUR FROM HARLAN COUNTY IN "I HEAR AMERICA SINGING.")
Out of funds, Kopple returned to New York to find donors. Producers balked, one asking, "Why is a little girl like you doing a film like this?" Miners phoned Barbara, saying "you gotta come down, something's happening." She returned, once with a new Mastercard, paying two months expenses, incurring years of debt. As miners kept on, "I realized that nothing in the world was going to stop me from telling that story."
When a federal injunction kept miners -- but not their wives -- off the picket line, Kopple saw the women of Harlan County rise. Women who "had watched their grandfathers and their fathers and their husbands go down in the mine," rallied. Feisty, determined, brandishing sticks and later guns, they became the heart and soul of the struggle. The women, Kopple said, "just carried that strike."
In October 1976, "Harlan County, USA" debuted at the New York Film Festival. Kopple worried that an urban audience might not cross the cultural chasm, but the film got a standing ovation. Then came the Oscars. The envelope, please. When "Harlan County, USA" won, Kopple accepted the award "on behalf of the miners of Harlan County who took us into their homes, trusted us, and shared their love with us." Then she went backstage to call old friends in Harlan County.
"People were screaming and yelling, I could hear them. 'We won an award!'. . . People got in their cars and drove around and were honking."
The next morning, the miners descended again into the darkness.