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The Criterion Collection presents

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

"It's a feudal system, I think. There's a very rich class of people, and then there are the coal miners."- Houston Elmore, an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America

Director: Barbara Kopple

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:44m:27s
Release Date: 2006-05-23
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

The January 2006 explosion at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia is only the most recent reminder that the coal industry is with us, in a big way—those of us who don't live in or near mining communities may have thought that the dangers, diseases and poverty associated with coal mining were relics of another age, but they remain facts of day-to-day life for miners whose work remains perilous and underpaid, and whose lifespans are too frequently cut short. And things may actually have gotten worse since this documentary was made—there's even more scrutiny and pressure on executives to drive up short-term profits, to please Wall Street and produce a larger quarterly dividend, frequently at the expense of the welfare and the lives of the men who work their mines. (The safety record at Sago, for instance, with its many violations, is staggering.) So in a way Harlan County U.S.A. is today more relevant than ever—but regardless of the current political climate, this is indisputably a towering achievement of documentary filmmaking, and is truly one of the most compelling movies that you will ever see.

Director Barbara Kopple and her crew tell the story of the miners of eastern Kentucky, on strike against the Duke Power Company for better wages and healthier conditions. The miners of Harlan County do the same work that their fathers and grandfathers did before them; each family, it seems, has an awful tale to tell, of accidents in the mine, of black lung and other horrific medical conditions, of the overall callousness of their employers. (Even here, in the mid 1970s, some mining families lived in company-owned homes that lacked indoor plumbing and running water.) The miners rightly feel that the deck is stacked against them—the cops, the courts, all the local authorities seem beholden to the company, so truly a strike is their only recourse.

As you might expect, the company doesn't take kindly to the strikers, and the strikers don't have kind words for the scabs, and just about everyone in town is armed, so the threat of violence is palpable from the jump, and is soon made good on. It's clear that Kopple has won the trust of the miners and their families—they're wary at first, but soon are candid, uneasy but pleased that someone wants to hear their story, hopeful that organized labor can get them what they deserve. They're clearly a close-knit community, and they know what the dangers are, but they're close to fearless when it comes to fighting for what's right. Kopple also gives us some broader context, about the Mafioso-like politics at the highest echelons of their union, the United Mine Workers of America—a former union president, for instance, goes to prison for ordering the murder of an insurgent candidate for his job. Duke Power President Carl Horn makes for quite a local villain, too, and more broadly, you can see how things like the workers' compensation system is stacked against the miners, for it has an incentive only for them to work to the point of becoming disabled.

But the heart of the piece is in Harlan, where the strike goes on for months and months, testing the patience, the resolve, and the limited finances of the mining families—they're frequently in an impossible situation, knowing that the sheriff won't protect them, and flirting dangerously with vigilantism. The miners are all men, but their wives are a fierce moral force as well—they want to hold on to their husbands, and know full well that before too long their sons will be working the mines, too. It takes one more awful event finally to settle this strike—a striker is killed, leaving behind a 16-year-old widow and a 5-month-old child, so while the victory is theirs, they and we know that the families of Harlan County will continue to struggle, will barely make ends meet, and will face the perils of life in a mining town every day for the rest of their lives.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The film was restored by the Academy Film Archive and the New York Women in Film Preservation Fund in 2004, and it looks awfully good here, especially considering what had to have been a rough-and-tumble shoot. You'll still see some scratching and fading, but this is a good strong effort.

Image Transfer Grade: A

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The bluegrass music on the soundtrack is a crucial element to the success of the picture, and it sounds fine here. Also, even when the miners are well miked—which isn't always the case—their accents can be tough to puzzle out for unfamiliar ears. "Hierarchy" comes out as "hirocki," for instance. I was glad that subtitles were available.

Audio Transfer Grade: A- 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Barbara Kopple and Nancy Baker
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Kopple is joined by director of editing Nancy Baker on a smart and engaging commentary track—as you might expect, they go over the history of the project, having to earn the trust of the miners and their families, many of whom remain their close friends. We also learn about off-screen adventures—funding the project sounds like a nightmare, for it was cobbled together from friends, grants and some dumb luck. Kopple is also particularly interesting discussing the politics of the documentary world—getting the movie into the New York Film Festival was a struggle, but the success of the theatrical run forged a path for other documentaries. Kopple also talks incidentally about her documentary bona fides, though she hardly needs to—still, it's always nice to hear about the tightly knit fraternity of the best documentary filmmakers, with the likes of Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker cheerleading for this project.

The Making of Harlan County U.S.A. (21m:43s) covers some of the same ground; along with Kopple, those interviewed include cinematographers Hart Perry and Kevin Keating; associate director Anne Lewis; Jerry Johnson, one of the miners; and Bessie Parker, a strike activist. The tales of winning over the skeptical miners are especially intriguing, as the strikers wondered just who these hippie-looking people with their motion picture cameras were. A package (26m:16s) of six outtakes, from hundreds of hours of footage, is just a small taste, but are nice vignettes of character stuff.

Two interviews are also worth a look. The first (11m:42s) is with Hazel Dickens, who was persuaded by Kopple to provide music for the soundtrack—she discusses her family history, her involvement with the project, and the continuing impact of the movie. The second (06m:26s) is with director John Sayles, with an emphasis on the influence this movie had on his own striking-coal-miner story, Matewan.

Roger Ebert moderates a thirtieth-anniversary panel (14m:01s) at Sundance, with Kopple, Perry, Baker and Dickens, and part of the discussion is devoted to local Utah miners on strike at the time, demonstrating that the struggle continues. Informative as well are the essays in the accompanying booklet—Paul Arthur discusses the politics of the film, Jon Weisberger the music.

Extras Grade: A+

Final Comments

A great achievement in documentary filmmaking, and a fierce, unflinching look at the rough lives of the underappreciated and underpaid in America. Barbara Kopple's film still stings, thirty years later, and this Criterion edition provides illuminating additional information and political and cinematic context. Highly recommended.

Jon Danziger 2006-05-30