• Obed Lamy

Harlan County U.S.A., an Intimate Look at the Social Injustice in America

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

More than forty years later have passed since the Harlan County U.S.A. was released. That was in 1976. Yet, this award-winning documentary directed by Barbara Kopple is still relevant in the Americas today, where social injustice is pervasive.

Kopple is undoubtedly one of the most acclaimed American filmmakers. Born in New-York in 1946, she previously studied psychology before pursuing a degree in filmmaking that she will later consider her primary interest. By trying to find her way in this field, Kopple worked as a sound technician and editor under the leadership of the documentary filmmakers Robert and David Maysles brothers. Then she stood on her own feet and became an independent filmmaker. Her credits include several films and distinctions, such as two Oscar for both American Dream and Harlan County U.S.A.

At just 26 years of age, she was relatively young when she began this project. In Harlan County - Kentucky, coal mine companies like Duke Power Company and Prep Plant treated their workers poorly. Kopple and her crew went into the coalfields to document the mineworkers' strike movement started in 1973. Then the film idea became clear in her mind. As an outcome of several years of shooting, she proposed 104 minutes of shocking pictures that depict the precarious conditions of the coal miners and their families. The film also gives an insight into their determination to stand against the injustice of these powerful corporations.

Harlan County U.S.A. opens with a series of both gloomy and moving images: a group of miners operating the machines in the tunnels. Not only does this scene establishes the film's topic, but it also gives viewers a sense of how risky it is working in a coal mine. The film goes on to show moments of high tension between the mineworkers and the company owners, including gun shootings and mine explosion. Filming also includes medical intervention for injured and burial of victims with adults and children tearing. That was one of the most emotional moments.

Such intimacy was accessible because Kopple and her crew were immersed in the real life of the characters. In an interview with Variety, Kopple reveals that the team had to use candles at night, bucket showers, and outhouses. Kopple shows a very feminist vision of the world of the coal miners when she chooses to portray the women, not as passive wives but playing a full role in the movement. They lead meetings, block the streets, and argue face to face with the companies' leaders.

In terms of artistic approach, Harlan County U.S.A is a pure cinema verité in style, with hand-held cameras following the people in their daily life. As The Nation suggests, the focus is more on the human story rather than on the economic controversy. Often times, the photographers opt for close-ups as a way to expose the characters' facial expressions that tell a lot of their realities of poverty. For example, viewers can see the misshapen teeth of the coal miners when they are talking.

We agree with The New York Times The success of the making of Harlan County U.S.A. has a lot to do with the editing work. In fact, there is no voice-over narration in the film, but the story is told through editing. However, this artistic choice makes it hard for the viewer to identify all the characters that are at the core of the story.

Some critics say that Kopple presents a unique viewpoint of the miners' strike. And yet, a documentary is inherently objective. However, one can agree with The New York Times that Harlan County U.S.A remains in the annals of the history of the social movements in the U.S.A.