Harlan County, U.S.A.

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Harlan County, USA is a 1976 American documentary film covering the "Brookside Strike" a 1973 effort of 180 coal miners and their wives against the Duke Power Company-owned Eastover Coal Company's Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County, southeast Kentucky. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 49th Academy Awards.

It was directed and produced by filmmaker Barbara Kopple, then early in her filmmaking career. A former VISTA volunteer, she had worked on other documentaries, especially as an advocate of workers' rights.

Why It Rocks

  1. The film is a great example of the "social documentary", where the world around the film crew is physically recorded, with a social and/or environmental focus. This film bypasses the usual narration for real sound and dialogue, and evocative music to add to the background of the events. Hazel Dickens did a great job with the haunting surreal nature.
  2. Adding to the above pointer, the documentary doesn't shy away from the harsh working conditions of the strikers or the heated emotions that surround their battle for better wages and working conditions. There's picketing and injustice and real violence of the labor struggle sort. At times, it nearly feels like the viewer's actually there with the workers and in their lives. The documentary is that convincing. This work holds no punches back.
  3. Despite the film being brutally honest in harsh working conditions, there's never a dull moment in the work and it's endlessly rewatchable.
  4. Though the documentary is mainly about a year long coal miner's strike in Kentucky, it also portrays some additional themes within the work, adding to the "never a dull moment" pointer.
    1. It also manages to be a story of the people all given their due as irrepressibly unique individuals and yet connected in their commonalities all the same. As a result, it's surprisingly very inspirational, and a couple of viewers may be inspired to take on the corrupt - since working people do have tremendous bargaining power, if they stay resilient and united.
    2. It's also a story about music, the songs to which the people, places and the struggles give birth and how strongly linked they are.
  5. The portrayal of the grotesque power of monopoly capital, along with their sheer nastiness and lack of basic humanity is clear and indisputable.
  6. There's quite a bit of strong women present in the work and they not just background people -- they play an actual pivotal role in the story.

The Film