Friday, July 15, 2011
Director: Barbara Kopple
Photography: Kevin Keating, Hart Perry
Music: Hazel Dickens, Merle Travis
Editors: Nancy Baker, Mirra Bank, Lora Hays, Mary Lampson
All these years later, Harlan County U.S.A. leaps out now as an eye-opening, bracing, even galvanizing film, a historical moment so raw and visceral it is painful to contemplate (made even more so by our own political moment now unfolding in Midwestern states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin). I was alive, fully grown, and more or less politically conscious for the events documented here, in the early and mid-'70s, but it nonetheless all came as news to me the first time I saw this last year. I vaguely recall the news stories, and the film passing through in the '70s, but it was a blip that barely registered. That's on me, of course.
Looking at this now feels like peering through a telescope into another time, which in turn is busy itself looking through its own telescope into another time. Layers of history peel back inexorably, until everything about it begins to feel ancient, even almost prehistoric. The primary battle documented here is an attempt to get the management of the Duke Power Co., which controlled the Brookside Mine in Harlan, Kentucky, to recognize the mining union that the workers had voted to join. The strike that followed to force this issue lasted 13 months, and the conflict descended more than once into violence and dirty tricks, including the murder of one young miner that helped to hasten a settlement, but that appears never to have been prosecuted or even investigated.
The striking miners rally themselves on the memories of the labor struggles of their parents and grandparents in the '30s, which if anything were even worse than what happens here. And what happens here is often not good. They sing the songs of that time—"Which Side Are You On?" with the strange rhythms of its verses and the odd notes it strikes in its melodies and its homely enduringness is particularly affecting. They tell the stories of the old times and continually remind themselves what the fight is for. They want their safety to be better protected when they go to work in the mines, and when accidents occur they want to know that their needs and the needs of their families will be met. Nearly everyone from Harlan appearing here obviously could have benefited from seeing a dentist. They live in houses that are little better than shacks, and dream of one day having indoor plumbing and hot running water. It's 1973 and 1974.
It's humbling to watch these events and begin to understand how sheltered my life has been—sheltered and nurtured by the very protections these people are fighting for. As they were standing up to "gun thugs" and intimidation and fighting to survive and keep their families going, even as scabs were trucked in to do the work, with the police taking point on keeping the roads open in order for the scabs to reach the mine at all, I was taking exams to get into college and hanging around with friends at 24-hour restaurants and debating points of Pink Floyd and Steely Dan and laughing a lot. I'm not saying what I was doing was wrong; it's rather that the people of Harlan should have equally been in a position to do and to see their own children doing such things. The disparity is striking, and grotesque.
How much have things changed? At one point the documentary throws up a card onscreen without comment, with these numbers for 1975: "Coal Company Profits, up 170%. Miners Wages, up 4%. Cost of Living, up 7%." If you think that only represent patterns of the past you haven't been paying attention to recent oil company profit statements, workers wages, and current costs of living (not to even get into unemployment patterns). Those people in those Midwestern states have just learned they may be in for such battles themselves now. Just as a marginal improvement is seen in Harlan from the '30s to the '70s, so there may be some marginal improvements seen in today's times. But the battles are shaping up to be equally pitched—and equally necessary, because they are about equally bedrock human rights: collective bargaining and access to affordable health care. It's 2011. I hope someone is making a documentary about today's struggles that's even close to as hard-hitting as Harlan County U.S.A.
Which reminds me, I should say some things about the film itself. It is expertly and courageously made, at a time when camera equipment weighed a lot more, cost a lot more, and was just plain unwieldy to work with. It's often beautiful, shot on a rich and deeply hued film stock, and demonstrates an amazing sense for composition on the fly. It seems uniquely capable of finding the most moving faces, and just letting them speak. There are gaps to the story, which I suspect occur because the film crew simply could not be everywhere and its aesthetic rightly favors the immediate—for example entirely eschewing things like voiceover, though it does necessarily make use of explanatory cards here and there. It follows the strikers outside of Harlan on a trip to New York City to publicize their struggle, and it's with them when the violence directed at them gets bad. There are some almost breathtaking moments of high tension in the conflict, including one harrowing scene that cuts into confusing chaos and gunfire, out of which a man suddenly emerges to attack the camera, whose images tilt wildly and then go black.
Harlan County U.S.A. is unusually sensitive to the situations of women in this struggle, in a time when feminism was just beginning to crease popular consciousness and evidently had as yet made virtually no inroads into Harlan, Kentucky, even as a concept to push against. As I said earlier, it often feels ancient—the land these people occupy, the songs they sing, the terms of the struggle they are dedicated to. It feels as old as civilization itself sometimes and yet as contemporary as Madison, Wisconsin, today. It manages a dignity that will likely exist as long as people watch movies, and it will remain relevant until every last one of its human rights issues is finally addressed and set right. Even then it will remain relevant for its part in helping to get us there.