Travis McClain’s review published on Letterboxd:
I'm a native Kentuckian, but it would be disingenuous for me to insinuate that I grew up around the coal mining part of the state. Still, you do grow up acutely aware that you live in a state where this is the way of life for a lot of your metaphorical neighbors. You discuss their socio-economic plight in social studies, and the nature of coal mining in science. Classmates have grandfathers who were miners. You hear about these things in music, like when Dwight Yoakam included "Miner's Prayer" on his debut album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. The point is, even when you've never set foot near a mine, you absorb some of that culture.
So it was that when I finally sat down to watch Harlan County U.S.A., I wasn't shocked the way that I'm sure a lot of viewers over the years were. The key theme that I don't recall having been emphasized in my classroom studies of such things, though, was how important were the women in this strike. We always heard about striking miners and what they wanted, but I don't recall it ever being discussed how integral to the success of the strike were the women; wives and mothers who put themselves in harm's way on the picket line even as the men they represented slacked off and didn't even show up for themselves!
Paul Arthur put it succinctly in his essay, Harlan County USA: No Neutrals There for The Criterion Collection:
Kopple clearly demonstrates how the political resonates through the deeply personal, gendered tasks of child rearing and other domestic chores in the daily lives of miners’ wives. However, these women are also shown taking vital leadership roles: organizing picket lines, forming support committees, and directly confronting the violence of scabs and company thugs.
It would be going too far for me to claim any meaningful solidarity with these miners, or even their descendants underground as I write about this documentary in my cozy suburban setting, but I think it reasonably fair to at the very least liken my reaction to watching and cheering on the Cincinnati Reds, my favorite baseball team. I'll never be a ballplayer myself (my one year of Little League was not good), but just as millions of sports enthusiasts across the world, I have a specific kind of vicarious identification with the team.
I think part of my attraction to rooting for Team Miners is that I cannot think of a harsher line of work. Coal mining is synonymous with black lung disease, and when was the last time any other vocation was best represented by a disease unique to its labor force? That's hardcore.
What could possibly lure an entire region, generation after generation, into that misery? It's always easy on the outside to shrug off someone else's plight and smugly suggest things like "If they don't like it, they should do something else". Trying to understand why so few ever could just "do something else" has long been at the heart of not just my philosophical relationship with mining, but my views on capitalism and socio-economics.
Anti-labor rhetoric historically demonizes workers as some combination of greedy and lazy, and here is where coal miners are the greatest counterargument. Whatever they get paid, it ain't enough! You can say multi-millionaire athletes are greedy or lazy when they threaten to strike, but you can't say that about miners. In fact, that's one of the implicit points of Harlan County U.S.A. that's the most powerful: These men and women endured all the hardships and abuses of their strike...so that they could return to the hardships of mining.
Think about that.
Being on strike for ten months was probably the healthiest, most rewarding time in the lives of these miners and their families, whom they finally got to actually see on a regular basis. I wish Barbara Kopple had showcased more of how different families handled the strike. It would have been interesting to learn, for instance, what (if any) impact the strike had on things like marriage, divorce, and birth rates.
We only see the impact of the strike on two families: The murder of Joseph Yablonski, his wife and daughter, by UMWA president Tony Boyle's hired assassins, and Lawrence Jones, a miner killed by a strike-breaker. Jones left behind a 16 year old widow and a 5 month old daughter. Think about that: A 16 year old widow with a 5 month old daughter.
And all of this strife for what? So that Duke Energy's shareholders could bask in a 107% increase in profits while the miners struggled with just a 4% increase in pay...in the face of 7% increase in cost of living expenses?
On a peripheral, but personal note, I was thrilled to find in the booklet for the Criterion DVD I was able to borrow from the Campbell County Public Library through the inter-library loan system a second essay, The Sound of Harlan County U.S.A., penned by Jon Weisberger. Back in the days when AOL provided USENET access, I connected with people like Jon and Patsi Bale Cox on the forum, rec.music.country.western.
After AOL stopped providing that access, most of the group regulars fell off. This was before social media really came along and I regret to say I lost contact with those folks. Jon was always thoughtful and passionate, and one of the good guys of Internet discourse. I'm sure it was a particular thrill for him to get to write this essay for this DVD release. I wish Criterion.com made it available to readers online.
How Harlan County U.S.A. Entered My Flickchart
Harlan County U.S.A. > Apollo 13 --> #789
Ron Howard's dramatization of the Apollo 13 near-tragedy is solid, but it isn't as compelling as Barbara Kopple's unapologetic doc of the Brookside strike.
Harlan County U.S.A. > Far and Away --> #395
Though I admire Far and Away's consciousness of the Irish immigrant story, Harlan County U.S.A. has the advantage of being a doc rather than a work of fiction. It's more compelling and wins here.
Harlan County U.S.A. < Titanic --> #395
Harlan County U.S.A. is the more compelling of the two, but I confess I'm just too partial to Titanic to not pick it.
Harlan County U.S.A. > The Sandlot --> #295
The Sandlot is a likable time capsule of an idyllic childhood that probably never really happened for anyone, but Harlan County U.S.A. is an unflinching record of a miserable time for an entire community. Misery > idealism here.
Harlan County U.S.A. > Une femme est une femme --> #246
If you ask me which I'd be more apt to want to re-watch, I'd say Une femme est une femme. If you ask me which one resonated with me in a visceral way and will never get out of my head, I'd say Harlan County U.S.A.
Harlan County U.S.A. < Jaws --> #246
I want to pick Harlan County U.S.A. here, I really do...but Jaws is Jaws, you know?
Harlan County U.S.A. < The Good Girl --> #246
For relevance and impact, there's no doubt this one should go to Harlan County U.S.A. However, there's something about Jennifer Aniston's performance in The Good Girl that has stayed with me all these years.
Harlan County U.S.A. < The Music Man (1962) --> #246
The Music Man wins here because it managed to entertain me despite my strong anti-musical bias, and that's rare. Still, Harlan County U.S.A. is easily the stronger film and the one I'd be more apt to discuss given the chance.
Harlan County U.S.A. > Hitori musuko [The Only Son] --> #237
I enjoyed Ozu's film, but Harlan County U.S.A. simply means more to me. It gets the nod.
Harlan County U.S.A. entered my Flickchart at #237/1578