This Oscar-winning documentary by Barbara Kopple chronicles the 1973 strike by Brookside mine workers in Harlan County, Kentucky, using actual footage of the events. Supplemented by documentation of the mine workers's historical struggle in the form of interviews and stock footage, the
film successfully captures the plight of the underdog mining community. Moreover, the poignant personal sagas and regional coal miners's songs add further texture to the drama.
The conflict between the United Mine Workers (UMW) at Brookside and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) escalate throughout the 13-month strike. Flashbacks to events prior to the strike illustrate the obvious grievances of the miners: The Mannington Mine disaster of 1968, with the
loss of 78 lives, brought to light the unsafe conditions present at most mines (conditions that were eventually admitted by mining bureau operations). However, the refusal of mining companies to acknowledge the effects of "black lung" is a constant burden to miners. In addition to the health
hazards, the film also highlights the futility of the miners's grievances concerning benefits and wages in the face of profit-driven Big Business--as is illustrated through a conversation with a UMW picketer and a New York City Policeman at the New York Stock Exchange.
The mob-like slaying of a UMW officer and his family in 1970 stresses the life-and-death seriousness of the strike for workers and their families. Justifiable fears of increasing violence between the striking miners and the BCOA is contrasted with the labor uprisings of the 1930s, with aged
participants relating their stirring stories of bloody violence and warfare.
Throughout the documentary, the power and the unity of the women in the lives of the miners is undeniable. The organization and strength of this group of women is unflinching, even in the face of automatic weapons used by BCOA mine management to intimidate the strikers. As pictured here, the women
are the true driving force of this mining community.
The strike finally comes to a hasty conclusion when a young miner is killed at the picket line by a Brookside mine employee. Afterwards, with the miners's demands fulfilled, the contract is quickly ratified, and the "victorious" strikers return to the mines. Ironically, only three months later,
the national coal contract expires, and 120,000 striking miners nationwide continue the UMW battle begun in Harlan County.
Through the use of moving personal stories, HARLAN COUNTY, USA provides an exquisite representation of the emotion and pride in this microcosm mining community. Risking their lives, the family's commitment to their cause is demonstrated time-and-time-again in tireless picketing during the 13-month
strike. Other stirring examples of the miners's fierce battle for equality are the regional songs heard throughout the film: An old woman singing a song she wrote for a strike in the 1930s which is still pertinent 40 years later, and the chant of a group of miners's wives which stops the
picket-crossing "scab" workers exhibits incredible power. When all is said and done, the footage of these conflicts as they occur (especially one scene where the camera operator is accosted) simply could not be matched with a script. These true "performances" relate as no dramatization could the
gritty drama and emotionally-compelling lives of this American mining community. (Violence, profanity.)
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