Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. was released at a time when few documentaries made it into mainstream culture. Her film broke that precedent. It documents a community in eastern Kentucky divided by a strike at its coalmine and gets to the heart of the struggle between industry and labor in America.
From the opening of Harlan County U.S.A., Kopple plunges viewers into the lightless coalmine. The first voice we hear is that of a miner yelling, “Fire in the hole!” before he sets off a blast. Then come more miners, faces streaked with coal dust, sliding belly-first down a makeshift chute into the earth. Kopple and her cinematographer, Kevin Keating, followed, filming the miners doing their dangerous work in cramped, disorienting darkness. Back above ground, the camera pulls out to reveal the mine’s setting: a shantytown of the Duke Power Company located in a clearing in the Appalachian Mountains. These scenes soon give way to scenes of striking miners. Overlaid text reads: “In the summer of 1973, the men at the Brookside Mine in Harlan, Kentucky voted to join the United Mine Workers of America. Duke Power Company and its subsidiary, Eastover Mining Company refused to sign the contract. The miners came out on strike.”
Interweaving her own footage with archival photographs and film, Kopple sets the miners’ effort to unionize into the larger history of the contentious relationship between the mining corporations and the people who toil for them. She lived with the Harlan County families for 13 months and grew close to them, which enabled her to document their story with striking intimacy and compassion. The women especially captivated her: they organized, agitated, and put their lives at risk on the picket line, using their bodies to block the strikebreakers and their gun-wielding allies. Kopple has said that the presence of her small team helped save lives, since nobody wanted to be captured on camera committing violence or murder.
The film’s soundtrack gives it additional power and roots it firmly to its place. Kopple chose songs indigenous to eastern Kentucky and the surrounding Appalachian region and commissioned path-breaking bluegrass artist Hazel Dickens to write a number of new songs. The music embodies the staunch determination of the miners and their families in their confrontation with the mine operators.
Harlan County U.S.A. won the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Despite this and the many other accolades Kopple has won, she maintains humility in relation to the working people who opened their lives to her camera, stating that her goal is “to be able to record first-hand their story as told by them.”