‘Harlan County, U.S.A.’


The 2004 eruption of activist docs may have predictably lapsed after the election, but the systematic reacquaintance with the Nixon era’s earthshakers proceeds apace: After the runs of Hearts and Minds and Winter Soldier, now comes Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), Oscar-winning socialist-cinema paradigm and an extraordinarily detailed chronicle of another, more intimate American war. Kopple documents a 1973 Kentucky coal miners’ strike in what amounts to real time—there are no after-the-fact summaries, but a persistent present tense of murder, gun threats, crowd violence, poverty, corporate usury, and in the end, astonishing communal solidarity. Simultaneously, Kopple sketches out a succinct historical context of nearly a hundred years of union building and its resultant bloodshed, a vast national story that still goes missing from public-school history texts (if not from Howard Zinn’s People’s History). In 1976, Kopple’s rather terrifying film rocked its minuscule audience and instantly became a cultural touchstone; today, it also spotlights, with its customized communist ballads, IWW sloganeering, and memories of healthier early-20th-century worker networks, the pathetic state of organized labor in the new global economy. As the miners make clear, workers have no rights in this democracy that they don’t fight like dogs for, and the film has no conclusion—the combat will always continue.