I’ve seen scenes from Barbara Kopple’s documentary about the Brookside Miners’ Strike, Harlan County, USA. But I’d never sat down and watched it—until tonight. I’m very fond of documentaries generally, but this one is certainly one of the best I have ever seen. It was so good, in fact, that as soon as it was over, I put it back on and watched it again. Cinema verite can be annoying to me, but here it provides a real and completely unsentimental look at people involved in an epic struggle.
What’s perhaps most amazing is how this young New Yorker with an elite background manages to tell this story without error. This was particularly clear at the end. I thought the film was over 15 minutes before it was. That was the point in the film where the mine workers finally got the contract that they had been striking for. That would have made a very nice, dramatic ending. But she keeps telling the story. Once the Brookside miners are finally part of the United Mine Workers of America, they are soon faced with a union-wide strike. The union negotiates a new contract, which the mine workers agree to without much enthusiasm. Yet they struggle on, because there is no choice.
There are three players in a struggle like that documented in Harlan County, USA: strikers, scabs, and owners. I understand the scabs: going on strike takes great courage that I don’t think I’ve ever had. And they make the noble sacrifice of the strikers that much more compelling. The owners, of course, I have no sympathy for. They are people who hold marginal profits higher than they do the lives of their employees. There’s one point at which a company spokesman says that of course they want to make sure their workers are healthy but that there just isn’t any evidence that Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (Black Lung Disease) is actually harmful. That’s the owners.
But I found a review of the film by Dennis Schwartz. Overall, it is a good review (although the B+ rating alone shows that Schwartz is some kind of idiot). But he starts the review with, “One of the better and more rousing labor strike films that calls attention to class war in America, though it doesn’t offer enough analysis or balance on the issues.” [Emphasis mine.] There is so much wrong with that sentence that I could write a book. Two things though. First, the movie isn’t about the owners or the coal industry generally. This is entirely typical of film “critics”: his only complaint about Harlan County, USA is that it wasn’t a different movie.
Far more aggravating (book length aggravating) is his call for balance on the issues. Just what kind of balance is he calling for? A little he said and she said? “The coal miners are calling for greater safety because a coal miner dies every other day. But the coal industry counters that they don’t give a shit”? The fact is that the film gives the owners quite a bit of time to speak for themselves and it only makes them look worse. Most of all, however, the comment shows that Dennis Schwartz has lost his way as a critic; he was judging the film when he should have been living it. That’s why it takes multiple viewings before one can reasonably discuss a film.
I cannot recommend Harlan County, USA enough. Even apart from its politics (which ought to appeal to readers of this site), it tells an incredibly engaging story of actual human beings trying to live their lives under difficult circumstances. And the music is fantastic.
None of the people in the films are made to look particularly noble, and yet, I could not help thinking of the chorus to Bruce Cockburn’s “Nicaragua”: “In the flash of this moment; you’re the best of what we are.” And indeed, warts and all, they are.