March 29, 2001

Cornell Cinema: Harlan County

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Visit the Duke Power Company web site and you’ll be dazzled by the colorful, dynamic graphics and buzz words like “smart energy,” “share the warmth,” and “community involvement”. Visit the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) home page and you’ll discover a very different message encased in a simple, straight-forward graphic environment. The buzz words here are very different: legislative action, black lung disease, health and safety.

Long before the invention of the Web, there weren’t any colorful pages of buzz words and high-tech graphics. There were guns, poverty, stalemates, death, disease, economics, unions, and coal mines.

In 1973 there was a great face off in Harlan County, Kentucky between the UMWA and Duke Power Company. There was no warmth being shared, and although there was community involvement, it wasn’t the kind that Duke aligns itself with in this era of the politically correct corporation.

Harlan County, a documentary of the struggle for unionization by coal miners and their families committed to celluloid by Barbara Kopple, is a testimony to this monumental battle for fair representation, wages, benefits, and work environments. However, this is not the only attestation the film delivers. It is a declaration of the millions of people who have lived the life of a coal mining town over the last one hundred years. It embalms a culture, a lifestyle, a struggle, an adventure that stems from the history of coal mining, so that all who cannot experience it may know and all who survived may remember.

The beginning of the documentary ushers us into a new world with a soundtrack of weary voices singing old and cherished folk songs about coal mining culture. The cracked, vibrant voices change the perception of true soul music. It is as if the souls of the singers flow out through their voices bringing with them the never forgotten souls of the coal mining people of long ago.

Following this solemn introduction is a historical overview of the coal mining industry as well as the culture of the people it created. There is an honest effort on the part of Kopple to present a circular picture of the industry. She not only presents the stories of veteran miners, but also current workers and their wives and daughters, and their union. Throughout the film, Kopple also travels to the flipside in search of the Duke Power Company perspective.

One well executed and poignant scene is comprised of a crossing of a literal and figurative line between these two factions. The strikers and “scabs,” or people hired to replace striking workers during a strike, sit on either side of a dirt road leading to the coal mine in Harlan. They wield firearms, indicative of the high tensions and desperate turning point of the unionization struggle. When the county sheriff shows up to insure the peace, the camera follows him across the dirt road line from the striking side to the company side. With this back and forth motion of the camera, the audience is presented with both perspectives on the situation, both reactions, and the fear experienced by both camps.

Another notable juxtaposition occurs in the unlikely setting of Wall Street. A gang of Kentucky coal miners in hard hats stand outside the Stock Exchange with picket signs warning investors of the instability of Duke Power. Soon a policeman, fully equipped with a New York accent, begins to chat with one of the Southern drawling miners on the line. It is partly comical, but also partly disturbing to hear these two very different people compare their jobs. The coal miner tells the cop that his job must be dangerous, but the cop laughs at the thought, saying he just walks around all day. The miner tells him that workers die every day to supply the power that keeps his city running. The cop then innocently remarks that the miner must make a decent chunk of change. The miner just shakes his head, saying that he cannot even afford to bring his children to the dentist.

Harlan County, much like the miners and families it represents, is a strong and forceful documentary. It is a solemn and important piece of history that will continue to educate, move, and inspire generations to come.

Archived article by Laura Thomas