Harlan County U.S.A. ★★★★½

Harlan County, U.S.A. is a documentary I've viewed before but that was before I joined Letterboxd. It playing on Turner Classic Movies tonight was the perfect opportunity for a second viewing of a topic that will be evergreen: workers at a job going on strike. An example (and a total 180 from this) is Vox Media (of such entities as SB Nation, The Verge and Polygon) allowing its workers to form a union as those employees were woefully underpaid. Here, it is a long, bitter strike between the coal miners of Brookside Mine in rural Harlan County, Kentucky and the mine's owner, Duke Power Company. The miners voted to join a national union but Duke refused to acquiesce to their demands so they went on strike. This documentary wasn't even meant to be about this event; it was originally to be about something else related to the coal miner's union. Then this fiery situation happened and it was a perfect event to cover.

There are some important things to note: there were strikes before this in the industry and I'll presume they were as nasty as the one that happened in the 1930's in Harlan County-known as the Harlan County War... and this event (starting in 1973) lasted for many months because scab workers were hired to work the mine instead. Another aspect is that Harlan County was and still is a very poor area-to the point that at least some of those on strike live in houses without running water-and I've heard that part of Eastern Kentucky hasn't changed too much since the 1970's. Considering that, how dangerous coal mining is and how black lung is not a rare illness for those workers, it is not a surprise that the filmmakers were not unbiased and favored the strikers. The details of all the rights that the miners wished to have was elaborated upon so I won't go into that here but the camera allowed the participants to speak for themselves and well, with what was shown it was easy to sympathize with those (literal) poor workers, no matter your background or upbringing.

This was and still is a fascinating piece of history about people that are too often marginalized or just ignored by the general public. Plenty of “earthy” people are seen and they are for certain interesting, colorful characters. The wives of the miners play an important role, both in the strike and in the documentary. This conflict is always compelling: some of them even go up to Wall Street in New York City to protest against Duke and a great conversation happens between a worker and a NYC cop; the latter is surprised by what he hears. The longer it goes on, the more things escalate, to a shocking degree. It's been said that cameras being there prevented things from being even worse.

While this is not a balanced view of the conflict, that is of little matter to me. The movie showed how workers at any job should be protected and not abused or mistreated by their employers. A big asset for this Academy Award winning documentary was the music you hear in the film; not only is it plentiful, the tunes are message folk songs sung by the residents of Harlan County. Those songs add plenty of local flavor. Of course, in these modern times there is much discussion over whether coal mining should still be a thing-due to the obvious dangers and the even more obvious environmental impact-and if that should be eradicated for the purpose of allowing alternate sources of power to be used instead (along with those in the coal mines being trained for another job) but that is a hot-button topic I won't get into here.

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