Movie Review – Harlan County USA

Harlan County USA (1976)
Directed by Barbara Kopple

Like sand, our memory of history in the United States slips so easily between our fingers that we have forgotten far more than we remember. In this way, film is an act of preservation, the attempt to secure moments in our past in a manner that words cannot. The story of the American worker is one that was ground down almost to nothing in the hands of the Reagan Administration and on into the Clinton Administration, Bush Jr, Obama, Trump, and now today. Many promising new unions are being formed, and it is clear younger people want to embrace that collective strength that is far more potent than the individualism that only leads to ruin & alienation. Barbara Kopple understands the importance of unions and who leads them, which brought her to Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1973.

Coal mining is a dirty, dangerous job, but it is also necessary as the United States depends on fossil fuels. Kopple and her crew arrived in Kentucky to chronicle the Kenzie Miners for Democracy’s attempt to unseat Tony Boyle, the then-president of the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America). Like many large-scale union bosses, Boyle was a puppet of the company, in this instance, Duke Power. Not all union leaders are bad, but when a union becomes powerful, you can bet money that the company will attempt to get their loyalists seated and woo the leaders who aren’t with gifts. So it was time for Boyle to go and for new blood to take the seat of power. But Kopple found a different story.

Instead, when she and her cameraman Hart Perry arrived, they found the Brookside Mine workers striking against not just horrible conditions in the mines but that their families lived in abject squalor. It was rare to find adequate bathroom facilities and certainly no proper heating/cooling systems for the laborers that Duke and their associates depended on. Kopple & Perry were rightfully met with suspicion by the locals; they were seen as “hippies” and outsiders, potentially exploiting the serious labor strike. So the filmmaking team embedded themselves with these families for years, understanding they needed to earn their trust and be transparent about the documentary, mainly how the people of the union would be portrayed.

One of the things you’ll quickly pick up on is that the union and mining companies are in a constant state of war. The company is always trying to provide the bare minimum to their workers, and frequently what would be considered even less than that. The union cannot rest for a second, or they will be thoroughly exploited. Elders in the community tell us that there have been periods of outright bloodshed in this region, brutal wars fought by the union against the union breakers. The very strike Kopple covers in this documentary is ended when a man is killed, and his literal child bride is left to raise their infant son without him. I think contemporary America likes to imagine that it is far removed from these types of things, but that would be foolish to believe.

We must never forget that the vast economic behemoths we, as workers, are fighting against are not stupid. There are undoubtedly significant and unwieldy, creating weak points that can be exploited, but no victory against them will ever occur on the playing field this same corporation has constructed. Of course, there is always the direct action of the strike and the workers attempting to stop scabs from crossing that line. However, a shadow war is happening beneath that, which some of the interviewed folks mention. Guerilla tactics are used to sabotage company equipment and disrupt production flow. Make no mistake, the Law exists to protect corporations & the wealthy. If you benefit from the Law at any point, that is a fluke, not the system’s intention.

Do not for a second think Duke Power or the Brookside Mine are owned by saintly men. They bring in what the union correctly refers to as “gun thugs.” As Kopple filmed, she finally saw the gun thugs cease trying to hide from the camera and brandish their weapons at the striking workers. Kopple & Hart are physically attacked in one harrowing scene as the strikebreakers rush the workers at night, thinking the shadows would hide them. These strikebreakers are brownshirts, the most rotten men you could encounter, bootlicking fascists who live slightly better than the miners they commit violence on but clearly aren’t that wealthy. They have been tricked into thinking that if they follow the Master’s rules, one day, they will get to eat at his table. That is a joke, a farce, a comical idea to even entertain. They are dogs who will never eat from anything other than the bowls where the Master throws his scraps. They imagine themselves as better than the rest of us but will be ground into the mud like everyone else if it comes to that.

One of the most compelling sequences in the film for me was a conflict that occurred between a pair of miners’ wives. One woman is accused of sleeping with another woman’s husband, and a big screaming match occurs when solidarity is needed. To win even the most minor victory against these corporate masters, you cannot let your personal feelings spoil things. You do not have to like everyone in your union, but you have to control that anger and direct it to the powers who deserve it. 

Stepping into this tiff is Sudie Crusenberry, one of the best people you will ever have the honor to observe. She shuts it down quickly because she is a local, which means she can speak the language of these women, and Sudie understands the Great Prize involved. She tells them she has no interest in chasing a man; all Sudie can think about are the two little boys she’s raising under these conditions and fighting for them. Sudie sees that what is essential is not the temporary grievances of the day but what happens when she is gone. What type of world will her boys grow into? What about her future grandchildren? What about people she will never meet?

If the world had more Sudies, we would all be living joyfully. We’d be standing up for each other, keeping the fight going, and knowing that when we died, we were leaving behind a world our descendants could be proud of. There’s a great quote from Sudie about the victory that was achieved from the strike, “We seen it rough, and we was treated rough, but we won victory. I believe in standing up for our rights together.” 

To live in this world, particularly in the United States, you must open your eyes to the fact that you are sold the illusion of progress daily. A female executive ascends to the status of CEO, and you are told that is a victory for you as a woman. A Black man becomes an important political figure within the boundaries of the establishment, and you are told that was a win for you as a Black person. But these are individual accomplishments, and often these people get power and do nothing with it to lift up those who need help. That is the nasty trick America pulls on marginalized people daily, making you think some already wealthy asshole getting a big payday is a win for you because they look like you. The human story is a collective story, not an individual one. 

Each of us is here and alive not because of one person but because generations of people fought to survive in an extremely harsh world. Some people stepped on others and left a trail of destruction behind them. Others kept extending a hand, and those they reached out to then reached out themselves to another in need. In this way, we will solve our most significant challenges and create a world that is so beyond our most fantastic imagination that it makes me tear up just thinking about it. I hold no illusions that I will live to see that world because there is so much work to be done, but I know it is waiting for us, not me, out there in history. It’s why I am a communist. Only unified will humanity make its highest achievements. Each individual is important, not by themselves, but as a piece of a beautiful mosaic. So we fight on for those Harlan County mine workers that fought for us and the endless number of laborers before them that fought. The Masters want us to believe we are without hope, that my neighbor is my enemy, but they are wrong. Let’s prove it to them.

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