Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Harlan County USA-1976-Barbara Kopple


Hazel Dickens turns out to be the star of Barbara Kopple's 1976 masterpiece Harlan County USA. "They'll Never Keep Us Down" is the perfect song to encapsulate everything Kopple's documentary delves into. It's such a beautiful thing, because it is rare to think of southern, more conservative folk fighting for social rights. Dickens is right up there with them.

"The power wheel is rolling, rolling right along,
The government is keep it going, going strong,
So working people get your help from your own kind,
Your welfare on the rich man's mind"

This group of people in Harlan County represent something beautiful that we, as a human race, so often fore go, but we all have within us. When we are united in hope, we will fight no matter the cost, for our freedom. That is why Kopple's film is a masterpiece in documentary filmmaking. Obviously influenced by the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker, she uses a cinema-verite style to capture this mostly unheard of movement.

I love that Kopple decided to title the film; Harlan County USA, not Harlan County, Kentucky. She is getting at something. These people are the us' of this world. We are the underdogs, and we all have something unjust in our lives that we can win over with sheer will, truth and justice. It is an underdog story if there ever was one. Seeing how these mining families live, it is heartbreaking. The workers put their lives on the line for pay and housing that shouldn't be offered to anyone, let alone someone risking their lives for their job.

"When we win the contract, daddy is gonna have hot running water,
and a big ol' bathtub."

Harlan County
has a passionate energy to it that bleeds through every frame. There is so much heart here, be it from the director behind the camera, or the people fighting in front of the camera. What one might expect to find within the confines of the film is more of a glimpse at what it's like to work in the midst of the earth, total darkness. And while we are shown brief excerpts of the men working, they most certainly aren't in any way the crux of the narrative at all. This is a film that is about struggle.

Kopple never tries to glamorize any of this, or make it aesthetically pleasing in anyway, she simply documents her surroundings. She isn't following these people because she finds Appalachian folk fascinating, just to learn more about them, as some have criticized the likes of fashion photographer Richard Avedon of doing during his photographic study of the west.

Harlan County
takes a lot of its focus and places it onto the women, the wives of the coal miners, as they stand up, in a very feminist fashion, and fight. While these women may not work in the mines, they are ferocious, and it's truly a beautiful thing that Kopple is able to capture all of this on film. It should be required viewing in many American history classes, for the ways in which in captures history in the making. Much like the civil rights movement, albeit nowhere near as important, and on a much smaller scale, these women take a stand and it's beautiful. It gets to a point that even Norman Yarborough, the president of Eastover(the company that owns the mines), had to say about the women's role in the strike.

“I would hate to think that my wife would play that kind of role. There’s been some conduct that I would hope that U.S. women wouldn't have to resort to.”

Just the phrasing he uses allows for him to seem despicable. Why only U.S. women? Are other countries women lowlier than ours? And why is it that men can fight and spit and cuss, but women shouldn't have to resort to it, especially when it's all they can do to help?

Tense doesn't even begin to describe when the woman decide to block the roads in a revolt to block the scabs(people who work in the mines while the actual workers are on strike). They have to face down the state troopers, which in this case, being such a small town, happens to be someone they know personally. Billy G. Williams, the sheriff, is faced with a tough decision because he is experiencing this strike first hand with his friends, but he has an obligation to get them off that road. It is a tragic moment that Kopple captures with grace and precision.

There are times Kopple herself was in danger of death, we hear guns fired in the darkness, and in an interview with Roger Ebert, she says she heard they were planning on killing her and her crew that night.

Kopple's film is messy, beautiful, simple and profound, just like a human being. It is a living, breathing organism.

1 comment:

Natasha said...

Just reading the review gives me hope. I love the line, "we all have something unjust in our lives that we can win over with sheer will, truth and justice." I really need to watch this now.