Forgive that grandiose introduction, gentle reader. You see, the only grounds on which anyone could criticise Harlan County U.S.A. - indeed, pretty much the film's only feature to have attracted condemnation - is that it refuses to even pretend neutrality in the manner of certain other documentaries: it stands squarely on the side of the miners. But that is a strength, not a weakness. A neutral film about the Harlan County War would be an immoral monstrosity.
Its passionate partisanship is a key part of Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning 1976 documentary, but the film is also an artistic marvel. After a terrific sequence showing the everyday work routine of coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky (Kevin Keating's cinematography in this scene alone would have made him a serious awards contender in a better world), the film's story begins with the miners at the Brookside Mine and Prep Plant affiliating to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1972. The miners demand the same contract other UMWA members enjoy, but Eastover Coal, owned by Duke Power, won't budge. Thus begins an extended strike.
The conflict escalates when the company uses Basil Collins and his hired thugs to keep the road open for scabs by setting up a machine gun and intimidating the pickets with clubs and firearms. Collins is the sort of character who'd have to be invented if he wasn't real: venal, brutish, egotistical and racist, he's exactly the man you want for your dirty work. As one reviewer noted, the film doesn't tell us what became of him: 'I don't say this because I worry about the man's welfare; I just want to know he’s dead so I can sleep at night.'
The sheriff and the courts are on the bosses' side, but the company scores an own goal when a young miner called Lawrence Jones is killed by a shotgun blast, leaving behind a sixteen-year-old wife and five-month-old daughter. (This leads to the film's most harrowing scene, in which a grieving and angry miner points out bits of Jones's brain matter on the asphalt.) Eventually the bosses fold and the Brookside miners get their UMWA contract.
Barbara Kopple and her team lived with miners' families for years, observing almost every aspect of their political organisation. In the cinéma vérité style the film adopts, the camera is not a neutral observer but an active participant; Kopple makes no effort to hide the numerous moments in which her presence affects events, leading, for example, to Collins attempting to conceal a pistol in his trouser pocket. In a celebrated scene, the pickets are attacked before dawn by the gun thugs, shots are fired, and Kopple is pushed to the ground with the camera.
'Know that nigger?', yells Collins in reference to an African-American picket. 'That "nigger" is a better man than you'll ever be', replies a miner. Traditional structures of marginalisation and domination among the strikers break down. 'We done make every colour when we went in; you all be look the same when you came out', says a black miner about the thick layer of coal dust and grime on their faces at the end of a shift. 'We's all brothers when we out', replies his white colleague, and the easy banter and obvious affection between the men gives the lie to the drivel Blue Labour and the Heil feed us about working-class racism.
Not, of course, that all's rosy among the workers. Kopple does not gloss over the internal conflicts and personal recriminations that break out when the going gets tough, but the community emerges strengthened as it is transformed by struggle. Patriarchy takes a back seat when women, who turn out to be more energetic than the men, begin to coordinate the strike. Chain-smoking Sudie Crusenberry, a mother of two whose husband is retired with black lung, reignites the flagging struggle; Lois Scott becomes the effective leader before long, brave enough to face down Collins and his thugs and with righteous wrath to spare.
Even though the strike is victorious, Kopple ends Harlan County U.S.A. on an ambiguous note. As the reform movement within the national leadership of the UMWA crumbles, the miners realise they may be banned from conducting future strikes without approval at the national level. But Kopple's point is that the struggle itself - the Luxemburgian dialectic of spontaneity and organisation we see operating throughout Harlan County U.S.A. - is crucial even when it is defeated. As one of my favourite passages in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath puts it (forgive the gendered language and philosophical idiosyncrasy):
For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man - when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back... This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live - for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live - for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know - fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe. (Ch. 14)Kopple never once abandons her story's particularity for the great forward march of history, but she does focus on the miners' political organisation at the expense of their personal lives. Considering she lived with her subjects, it's remarkable how rarely we see children or the inside of people's homes. There are, instead, a lot of meetings and interviews with several generations of Harlan people, from veterans of the vicious struggles of the 1930s to the teenage wife. 'The union' and solidarity have been fought and died for, and as a result they're deeply embedded.
Life in Harlan was hard even in the 1970s, before Reaganomics took their toll; in the film, the county looks like a third-world enclave inside the West. The legacy of neoliberalism was to bring the Global South home, globalising sharp contrasts between the rich and the poor. Kopple's miners have no confidence in government: they're fully aware that they'll only get what they fight for themselves. Call it all things held in common; call it democracy. Call it freedom: the freedom countless people have fought and died for through the ages, their names forgotten because they robbed, evicted and bombed no-one.