Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Review: Harlan County, USA

Barbara Kopple’s 1976 award-winning documentary film Harlan County, USA documents a 13-month coal miner’s strike against the Brookside mine and Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky, which took place in 1973 and 1974. Although Kopple’s filmmaking clearly chooses sides as she lives among the miner’s families and attends their meetings, her documentation of this explosive situation in Harlan County provides unique perspectives into the poverty-stricken Appalachian community and gender roles within the strike organization. Kopple’s documentation of the inner workings of the United Mine Workers of America likewise provides a unique perspective into organized labor within the coal mining industry.

As the film begins, an elderly, impoverished-looking man sits on his front porch and delivers a heartfelt rendition of a miner’s folk song, then relays an anecdote from his days as a coal miner, suggesting that once, when he was injured in a mine, it became clear to him that the mine bosses “thought more of a mule than a man,” because the man was more easily replaced. Next, a camera follows a pickup truck through the poverty-lined streets of a Harlan County coal camp with a loudspeaker drumming up support for the UMWA and the impending strike at the Brookside mine. Before long, as Kopple has set the tone for the approaching labor conflict, the film cuts to archival footage of John Lewis, who was UMWA President from 1920 through 1960. Perhaps this footage of Lewis is to serve as a reminder of the 1930s strikes, which earned Harlan County the name “Bloody Harlan,” and which would be referenced several times in the film by the striking miners.

The film continues to follow the organizing efforts of the miners and their wives, their frightening confrontations with scabs on the picket line, the murder of a striker and his subsequent funeral, the vote among the strikers to affiliate with UMW, and finally a
walkout at Brookside and nationwide UMW strike after the new contract had been won. Intermingled among the documentation of the Brookside strike and the organizing efforts of the miner’s and their wives, the film departs entirely from this path with two loosely-related issues. One is the political machinery and political struggle within the UMWA, in which President Tony Boyle is challenged by reformer Jock Yablonsky. Boyle wins the election, but ultimately has it invalidated and is also convicted for the murder of Yablonsky and his family. The other departure is a quick venture into black lung disease, in which miners are shown going through rigorous examinations and a doctor explains the harsh effects of coal mining.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Kopple’s work is that she uses gender as a category of analysis in documenting the strike organization, and that the film largely focuses on women as active participants and not just as wives or strike supporters. Although not specifically revealed, it becomes clear that the wives of the striking miners do not work outside the home, and thus for economic reasons have a vested interest in either supporting or opposing the strike. Kopple uses a gendered analysis in that the miner’s wives are there organizing as women and forming a collective identity. In more than just supporting the strike, the women take an active role in organization and on the picket line, leading to both contention, at times, and solidarity within the group of women.

At the same time, Harlan County, USA might paint an unflattering portrait of Appalachian women, it also dismisses certain myths and stereotypes associated with them. The group of women who took an active role in the strike became the film’s central focus because they seemed to be the most important players in the conflict and the nucleus of energy for the cause. While it could be argued that their actions were in support of their husbands, their measures in forming blockades or facing down law officials should completely dispel the stereotype of the role of Appalachian women as that in subordination to men.

While no doubt Harlan County, USA is an accurate and fair depiction of the Brookside strike, it is clear that Kopple’s work is meant to show compassion for the strikers. Therefore, bias would not exist in a fair and accurate depiction, but rather a sympathetic viewpoint might. Though not a broad and expansive examination, Harlan County, USA does a great deal in helping the student of Appalachian women’s studies to better understand the role of women in Appalachian institutions. It does this best in that it shows Appalachian women, while not working outside the home, remaining a vital part of the stability of communities and families. As coal mining is clearly an Appalachian institution, it becomes evident in the film that women are a vital part of that institution even if not miners themselves.

Two specific scenes of the film became memorable ones to this viewer because of the positive and negative realities they displayed. The first was when the strikers send a party to New York to picket a Duke Power stockholders meeting and a conversation about labor wages and dental benefits unfolds on the street between one of the picketing Harlan miners and a sympathetic, Hispanic New York cop. The second came in the form of sound bites; first from an anti-union Harlan resident suggesting that “unions are ruining our country,” and secondly from Eastover President Norman Yarbrough who responded to the role that women were playing in the strike by saying that he would hate to think of his wife playing that kind of role, “there’s been some conduct that I would hope that U.S. women wouldn’t have to resort to.”