Harlan County U.S.A. ★★★½

Film #7 among my 52 Films by Women 2016

In documenting the 13-month Brookside Mine workers' strike of the 1970s, director Barbara Kopple helped pave the way for a new perspective in nonfiction cinema. She demonstrated that a documentary filmmaker could go beyond disassociated observation and take a side in a social issue. And in doing so, she creates not only a movie with a powerful message, but also one that achieved mainstream distribution by virtue of its broad appeal.

The primary conflict here is between the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and Duke Power Company, which owned the Eastover Coal Company's Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County, southeast Kentucky. In 1973, the local miners voted to organize under the UMWA, but Duke/Eastover refused to sign a contract with them. The fledgling union members at Brookside went on strike in protest, joined by their brethren at the nearby Highsplit Mine.

The company's reaction was to ignore the employees' demands. They hired replacement workers -- so-called "scabs" -- to cross picket lines and keep the mines producing. When the strikers tried to block them, the employers brought in "gun thugs" to escort the scabs to the worksites. That led verbal confrontations, then shoving matches and eventually gunfire. And when the wives of the union men took to the picket lines, it only got uglier until a young man was murdered, leaving behind a 16-year-old wife and 5-month-old baby.

Kopple won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1977, and her film was granted a listing on the National Film Registry in 1990. She uses archival footage from the 1930s, when Harlan County was the scene of a similar bloody confrontation between miners and mine operators, plus folk songs representative of the coal miners' woes, from systemic poverty and back-breaking long hours to black lung disease.

As much as I could empathize with the plight of the workers, I couldn't rate this film higher than 3.5 stars. I'm an activist for Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal Campaign" and an advocate for keeping fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change caused by carbon pollutants. Transitioning the nation's coal workers to clean energy jobs cannot be done overnight, I know, but I feel we are making progress each time a coal-fired power plant is shuttered or a coal mine is closed. So it was hard for me to cheer the miners' small victories; they are part of the environmental problem, not the solution.

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