Harlan County, USA: An Unbiased Film?

Hello Everyone,

Here is a paper I wrote about a documentary, Harlan County, USA, and was screened during one of my MFA classes back in 2009:

During the late seventies, a female filmmaker by the name of Barbara Kopple set out to Harlan County to shoot a mine worker’s strike. When the film was complete, she had created a rather moving story about the struggle of the coal miner’s against a big corporation named Duke Power. In an essay by E. Ann Kaplan, there is an idea that is put forth that even though this documentary is constructed out of footage of real events, the film itself is presented as a highly structured argument about this strike from the miners’ point of view (Kaplan, 2). The film gives much credence to this statement, because of the way the footage is edited together. How does this film support Kaplan’s statement? If the film does have a narrative structure, then what separates it from a fiction film? Whose point of view is this film from, the miners’ or the filmmaker’s?

The most obvious piece of evidence to support Kaplan’s claim is the fact that the film possesses a story arc. Every film and television series that is written possesses a story arc. The arc begins with an opening or introduction and is then followed by an ascending action, which eventually leads to the climax of the story and is then followed by descending action and the conclusion of the story. The structure of this film follows this arc. First, there is the opening with the miners working in the mines and the elderly man and his daughter singing about the history of mining in Harlan County. Then the ascending action comes as the film introduces the protest and focuses on the escalation of threats against the miners by “scabs.” The climax of the film is clearly shown in the scene where the filmmaker is shooting a protest at night and the “scabs” start firing into the crowds and even the filmmaker gets injured in this madness. The descending action occurs when the film shows an old woman who lost her son in that scuffle. The conclusion, however, does not seem apparent in the film. In a sense, this is where Kopple breaks from the traditional Hollywood form of storytelling. Instead of letting the coal miner’s victory in getting a better contract to be the end, she takes this a step further. She talks to some of the coal miners further to see how happy they are with the contract. Some of the older miners are not as enthusiastic about it as the younger miners (Biskind, 7). From their interviews, the audience can understand that the fight between the coal companies and the miners is almost a never ending one. In other words, this story has a very open- ending (Biskind, 7).

Also, Barbara Kopple’s structured argument in her is apparent in another way. Her film seems to be influenced by a fiction film named Salt of the Earth, directed by Henry Biberman (Kaplan, 2). Biberman directed a film presenting a similar argument to Harlan County, USA, in which a group of Latino miners protested against a big power company. With the help of their wives, they were able to get a better contract. One example of this influence in Kopple’s film is the fact that both films set up the big company owners as the “villains” of the story (Kaplan, 2). The people who owned the mine in Salt of the Earth were the antagonists and the owners of Duke Power were portrayed as the heartless owners of the company (Kaplan, 2). This is shown in the press conferences of the film after the audience is introduced to the “scabs” where they talk about the miners refusing the contract, but not mentioning the “scabs.” The scabs are also portrayed as the villains, especially in the climax when the “scabs” attack the protesting miners, there is one shot of one of the main scabs with a smile on his face ordering another scab to shoot a black man. The miners, however, are portrayed as heroes just like in Biberman’s film (Kaplan, 2). One scene where this is apparent is when the striking miners decide to join with miners from other counties and put together a massive protest against Duke Power. Another scene is when the miners decide to take their fight all the way to New York City and hold demonstrations on the sidewalk in front of the Wall Street stock exchange building.

The miners in Kopple’s film are essentially its rooting interest. This can be seen in the opening sequence of the film where Kopple shows the miners entering the mine and carrying out their work. At first glance, one might think that this opening would introduce a movie about how to mine, but it slowly progresses into a story about the miner’s struggle for a fair and better contract. The film, however, does manage to shift focus at times from the male protestors to the female ones as well. This is also influenced by Salt of the Earth (Kaplan, 2). One main example of Kopple’s attention being focused on the women as sources of strength for the protests takes place in the trial of Duke Power and the protestors, which include the men and women protestors. One woman stands up and tells the judge that the law is not fair and would always lean in favor of huge companies like Duke Power. Interestingly enough, Kopple does not zoom in or try to get a close up of the woman’s face, but instead it is blurred and her identity remains anonymous. Kopple is perhaps “using” this woman as a icon for the strength of the women in the protest.

With all of this said, is this film really told from the miners’ point of view or from the filmmaker’s? This film actually seems to be from the filmmaker’s point of view. The best way of proving this is the evidence of feminism that it portrays. One example of this is the scene where the women meet in the gymnasium to discuss how they are going to help the men with the strike after the severe attack in the climax of the film. At one point in the scene, one woman pulls out a gun from her bra and shows it to the rest of the women, indicating that she is saying that it is time to fight back. Also, there are other scenes where the women are shown protesting when the men could not and showed the women in their jail cells after they were arrested for doing so. These moving scenes give the film a strong feminist voice.

Even though Kopple’s film is a structured argument, how do we know that the footage is real? This question is best answered through her camera work. One could even say that her documentary is participatory in a sense. In one scene where this is apparent is when the lead scab questions her about a press pass and she in turn begins to ask him questions. This scene alone calls attention to the fact that the filmmaker is present on the scene with the protesting workers and could possibly be supporting them by refusing to give her press badge to the lead scab. Another scene that calls attention to her presence is the scene where the sheriff comes out to arrest the protestors for protesting on a hill and in turn they present him with an arrest warrant for the lead scab. The camera pans as the sheriff walks over to the scabs and reveals a young man doing sound for the film. Finally, there are the one-on-one interviews with the miners and sometimes we can hear her asking the questions. Interviews are one of the hallmarks of a participatory documentary (Nichols, 121). According to Bill Nichols, “the interview allows the filmmaker to address people who appear in the film formally rather than address the audience through voice-over commentary” (Nichols, 121). One example of this occurs when Kopple is interviewing the women protestors in jail. Through the interview, the audience could see that Kopple is trying to convey the message that these women are just as strong as the male protestors, without having to directly tell the audience. Her decision to shoot in the jail cell with the women protestors could also show her solidarity for their cause. According to Peter Biskind’s article, “Harlan County, USA: The Miners’ Struggle”, “We don’t learn much about what it feels like to work beneath the earth or get much sense of the texture of daily life lived in the shadow of the mine. The film is not an ethnographic study of a quaint community of mining folk” (Biskind, 3). We see more images of the struggle, which includes the picket lines, the meetings in the gymnasium, the funerals, and the one on one interviews, than images of the miners working in the mine (Biskind, 3). The shots are definitely not stylized, especially in terms of the camera (Biskind, 3). For example, in one meeting where a miner’s wife pulls a gun out of her bra, the filmmaker has the camera zoom into her face while she explains herself. At this time, the woman’s face temporarily goes out of focus and is then adjusted while the camera is still recording. The film also follows the strike in a chronological pattern. In other words, the film follows the strike from its inception to its “conclusion” at the end of the film (Biskind, 3).

Finally, there are the dramatic scenes that Kopple includes in her film. One example of this is in the scene where the workers hold another meeting in the gymnasium to discuss some of the weaknesses within their movement that might be impeding its progress. During this meeting, some of the women begin to accuse one another of not pulling their weight in the strike. One woman accuses another of staying in bed while one of the protests was taking place, who in turn told her accuser that she was sleeping around with other women’s husbands. The conflict was finally resolved when one of the women, who was smoking a cigarette, told a tearful story about the difficulty of her father’s life as a miner. Another dramatic scene that Kopple uses in her film comes towards the end of the film itself. This scene is the funeral of the young man who shot in the early morning protest by a scab. During the viewing of the body, his mother has a breakdown due to her immense grief, in which she has to be carried out of the room by some of the townspeople.

In conclusion, Barbara Kopple’s film is not just about the miners, but about the importance of standing up for one’s rights and against poverty. It may be debatable whether Kopple’s film is a documentary or not, but one thing remains true. There is a strong narrative structure to this film with a strong message.


Works Cited.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 2001.

Biskind, Peter. “Harlan County, USA: The Miners’ Struggle.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. 14. 1977. 3-4.

Kaplan, E. Ann. “Harlan County, USA: The Documentary Form.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. 15. 1977. 11-12.


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