Harlan County, USA (1976)
Directed by Barbara Kopple
Kopple’s riveting documentary classic still reverberates truths about our forgotten working class. The film reminds us how organized labor used to be as American as apple pie, even in places like Kentucky—where unions were once part of the populist fabric. Kopple’s film focuses on the 1973-74 coal miners’ strike in the titular southern Kentucky county, which began after Duke Power Company refused to sign the standard union contract when workers for their subsidiary, Eastover Mining Company, joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The strike echoes the “Bloody Harlan” of the 1930s, a series of violent skirmishes involving coal miners and mine operators, which resulted in several deaths.
Kopple and her crew are strikingly committed to delving into these miners’ lives: they go into their homes, attend their meetings, and turn up at their 5am blockade. More notable is the fearless support of these men’s wives’ and daughters’ in the picket line and their ruthless solidarity in the perpetual struggle. Like Fahrenheit 9/11, Harlan County, USA is among the few American documentaries to enjoy nationwide success, and like Michael Moore’s 2004 doc, it resonates louder today. Alejandro Veciana (February 17, 7pm at the Metrograph with Kopple in person)