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There is power in a union
A region 1 DVD review of the Criterion special edition of HARLAN COUNTY USA by Slarek
 
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair*
Which Side Are You On? – Florence Reese
It's hard to explain to a crying child
Why her Daddy won't go back
So the family suffer
But it hurts me more
To hear a scab shout "Sod you, Jack"
Which Side Are You On? – Billy Bragg

 

The fight by mineworkers for a decent living wage, safe working conditions and even the right to join a union has been a long and international one that has, in its time, cost many lives and left entire communities in ruins. The above quoted lines are from different interpretations of a song that came to symbolise the struggle. Written by Florence Reese in response to the brutality of the strike in 1930s Harlan County, Kentucky, it was later adapted by Billy Bragg as a rallying cry for the British miners' strike in the early 1980s. The title was even used by the venerable Ken Loach for his 1984 documentary on the same. But we'll get to that later.

I'm willing to bet that very few of you reading this review have ever participated in a workplace strike, let alone stood on a picket line and attempted to communicate your message to those passing through the gates who have refused the call. I'd be damned surprised if many film or DVD reviewers have ever done so. I'd even go as far as to speculate that not many of you are even members of a workplace union. It's a concept that is too often consigned to history by the children of the post-Thatcher age, where the ideas of community and unity has been traded in for a more self-centred focus on the individual, and the wants of the one are almost always put above the welfare of the many. The very idea of unionisation has been and continues to be demonised by the yellow press, and any hint that people are collectively willing to stand up to unfair legislation prompts them to unleash a tirade of lies and abuse that a depressing proportion of the population seem willing to swallow. In a time when British employment law heavily and increasingly favours the employer, the very concept of 'power mad unions', as they are so often dubbed by the tabloid right, is simply ridiculous. The message sent down by the powers that be to those working at the lower end of the economic pyramid is clear – accept your lot and don't complain about it, and if you try to improve it in any way then we will do everything in our power to stop you. And we have a lot of power.

And people accept it. That's the worst aspect, the thing that makes the struggle for fair and equitable treatment such a slog. A sizeable proportion of those who chose not to join a workplace union do so because they have grown up with the media-fed misconception of what unions are about. But just as many simply cannot comprehend, or just do not believe in, the concept of collective action. They buy into the company PR that assures them that fairness and equality is a workplace guarantee, that if they play by the rules then their employer will always do right by them. When it does go wrong, as it too often does, their illusions are suddenly shattered and they don't know where to turn. I see this a lot where I work. As a workplace union representative, the single most common phone call I get starts with the words "I'm not in the union, but..." These are people who suddenly find they need the organisation they were never before willing to commit a few pounds a month to be part of and support, despite being happy to reap the benefits that those before them had fought and paid for. Only when they find themselves in trouble are they suddenly and urgently interested in becomeing a union member. It's like being in a road accident and afterwards asking an insurance company if you can retrospectively cover your car and make a monety claim.

It is perhaps a testament to the democratic nature of the internet that a film about industrial conflict can be written about by someone who at least has experience of strikes and picket lines, rather than just academics who have merely read about it or seen it on TV. Many years ago I lost a job, in part because I tried to organise the workers at a small factory into a collective voice (the pay and conditions were atrocious), and as a union steward of many years standing I have taken part in my share of industrial action. The decision was never taken lightly or without good reason, even though the media has sometimes done its best to trivialise the cause or misrepresent the issues. And the mere fact that we were on strike at all was often seen as evidence of our inherent evil. According to them, if we exercise our only real bargaining tool and collectively elect to withdraw our labour, for whatever reason, we are doing so out of selfishness. This is bullshit. And as the rights of workers both here and in the USA are gradually eroded, it's dangerous bullshit.

I've stood on and organised picket lines and dealt with everything from indifference to verbal abuse, but I'll freely admit that I've never had a gun pointed at me or faced off a gang of strike breakers armed with baseball bats. I've also never stood on that picket line for almost 10 months while my family attempts to make do on a paltry strike fund in lieu of wages. Would I fight that hard and long on a matter of principle with the hope of bettering my lot? I really don't know. But if I were a miner back in 1973, living in run-down company shacks with no internal plumbing and working in conditions that were resulting in long term illness and premature death, you're damned right I would. Such was the struggle of the Harlan County miners and their families. What were they fighting for? Nothing extravagant or unreasonable, just the right to join the union of their choice, the United Mine Workers of America.

The mining companies of Harlan County in Kentucky had a long history of fighting the unionisation of their workers. In the late 1930s, a series of bitter conflicts between the miners and their employers ended in an armed battle and several deaths. In the dispute at the centre of Harlan County USA, the representatives of the Duke Power Company and its subsidiary the East Mining Company claim that it is not the principal of a contract with the UMWA that they are opposed to, no sir. All they want is for the workers to sign a 'no strike' clause, effectively robbing them of their only bargaining tool. On the surface, then, it may seem as if the men were on strike to win the right to go on strike, but it was about much more than that – it was about a decent living wage, about safe working conditions, about having proper sanitation and plumbing in the only housing they could afford.

Barbara Kopple was prepping a documentary on the Miners for Democracy reform movement when the Harlan Country strike began, and she, in her own words, "just jumped into it, not knowing what to expect." Initially blanked by a wall of distrust from a community that was inherently suspicious of outsiders, a combination of determination and chance soon saw that wall begin to crumble. She lived with the miners, stood on the picket lines with them, even took cover with them when they were being shot at by gun thugs. And she did this not for a couple of weeks, but for ten months. In the process she became part of the very community she was documenting and as a result got far closer to her subjects and their plight than her outsider status would normally have enabled.

Initially a chronicle of the strike itself, the film sidetracks to provide some historical background on the 'Bloody Harlan' strike of the 1930s, the 1969 murder of union activist Joseph Yablonski and his family (ordered by corrupt union president Tony Boyle, whom Yablonski opposed), and the damaging effects of the disease known as 'black lung', the result of years of inhaling coal dust in poorly ventilated mines. But at the film's humanist core are the miners and their wives. A formidable force in their own right, the women – notably the indomitable Lois Scott – prove to be every bit as determined and possibly even more organised than their men folk. Their collective strength of character is vividly communicated as they draw up rotas for picket duty, harass the local sheriff into serving an arrest warrant that they have procured, and in one of the film's most memorably tense scenes, face down a group of gun thugs with sticks and baseball bats.

Kopple's total commitment to the miners' cause will no doubt create problems for those still clinging on to the misguided belief that all documentaries should sit on the fence in a vain attempt at balance. This is especially inappropriate in the case of political documentaries, who purpose is often to fly in the face of popular understanding, to present a view that contradicts the often establishment-sanctioned status quo. In many cases it is this oppositional viewpoint that goes some way to providing the very balance the complainers are looking for – you want the opposing opinion as well, then just open a paper, switch on the TV or just turn open your ears in a public place. You'll find it everywhere. And although the politics of the situation are crucial to the story being told here, the film is primarily about the miners, their families, and how they are affected – their lives, their suffering, their determination, and above all their complete dedication to their cause. And Kopple's integration into the community connects us with it's citizens to such a degree that we begin to enjoy their company as much as she did, and to better understand and sympathise with their struggle.

In some respects the mining families fit the role of classic movie underdogs, fighting for justice in the face of impossible odds for a cause that any reasonable audience can rally for. They are likeable, articulate and passionate, their battle is just, and the odds are heavily and increasingly stacked against them, with an injunction served to stop more than a handful protesting at one time, but a blind eye turned to the weapons fired at them by the company gun thugs. The film even has an identifiable bad guy in the shape of Basil (pronounced "Bay-zil") Collins, a genuinely unpleasant and sometimes frightening figure who appears prepared to use any means at his disposal against the miners and their families. But the stakes here are far higher than in any fictional feature precisely because what we are watching is real. Thus when a group of thugs armed with bats approach the picket line there is the worrying prospect that we will witness someone we have come to know and like being horribly injured, and when the increasingly frustrated miners find themselves in a firearms stand-off with Collins and his goons, the possibility that it will result in on-camera death is almost stomach churning. This is most vividly realised when the violence is directed at Kopple and her two-person crew, a sudden and aggressive assault that is immediately preceded, in the film's most famous and terrifying moment, by a shot of Collins pointing his gun directly at the camera as a young visiting lawyer screams off-camera for him not to shoot. Eventually our worst fears are realised, but it is the aftermath rather than the incident itself that proves the most sobering, and becomes the sad catalyst for the reaching of an agreement between the employers and their workers.

The film tells its story in rivetting fashion and shines in its subjects and a whole string of memorable moments and scenes, not all of which are as dark as those detailed above. Kopple's ability to repeatedly surprise or delight us can be found in the most unexpected events, from Lois cheerfully pulling a revolver from her dress to an absolute gem of an exchange between a New York beat cop and mineworker Jerry Johnson, who is in town to protest outside the New York offices of the Duke Power Company at their annual shareholders' meeting. Such intimate moments are the direct result of the long-term commitment of Kopple and her colleagues, her willingness to devote over a year of her life to a project that she never believed would be seen by anyone but her family and friends and those she was filming. It is the sort of film that just could never have been made by an organisation, the funding required to send a paid crew into the mining community for that length of time being beyond the means of most documentary budgets, and the subject matter alone would be unlikely to attract a commission. This is documentary made with passion, dedication and a belief in what you are doing that extends way beyond the film-school desire for recognition as a filmmaker. That this recognition came to Kopple anyway in the form of widespread cinema distribution, an Academy Award, and the film's inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1990, is a kind of pleasing, poetic justice.

Harlan County USA remains one of the great documentary works of the modern age, and politically is as relevant now as it ever was. Miners in America continue to fight for justice (Utah 2005 – see the Sundance supplement on this very DVD) and unionised workers across the developed world are finding themselves in the worrying position of fighting not just for better rights and conditions, but to prevent the gradual erosion of those that our predecessors fought so hard and in some cases gave their lives for. Meanwhile non-unionised labour in areas from fast food restaurants to supermarkets continue to be exploited by organisations whose annual turnovers exceed that of some small countries.

It would be heartening to think that the film would also inspire up and coming filmmakers to point their cameras with an eye for the message rather than the audience or the pay cheque. That said, getting the resulting film seen and the achievement recognised is, in the UK at least, a struggle in itself – witness Franny Armstrong's three year devotion to the McLibel trial and the long fight to get the film the TV screening it deserved (her extraordinary Drowned Out has still yet to seen on UK TV), while the above mentioned Ken Loach documentary on the UK miners' strike, Which Side Are You On?, was initially banned by the very people who commissioned it for showing the striking miners in a sympathetic light.

If I seem to have gone on a bit then it's only because it's hard to stop talking about something you love. Harlan County USA is a marvellous example of the political documentary at its best, combining politics and humanism with the immediacy of Direct Cinema and the drama of the finest of fictional features. And it's all real, every frame. If you're suffering under the weight of a workplace struggle of your own, then see it for inspiration. If you are dismissive of the need for unions then see it to understand the necessity to organise and fight for what you believe is right. And if your job pays a good wage and the working conditions are beyond reproach, then see it to appreciate the sacrifices made by previous generations of workers to make it so, and fight tooth and nail to prevent those hard-won rights being taken away from you.

sound and vision

Shot on 16mm, the footage itself was framed 1.33:1, but matted to 1.78:1 for the New York Film Festival screening and the more widespread release that followed, and that is the version included here. This does mean that some of the framing is uncomfortably tight, and the odd chin or head is cropped, but for the most part this aspect ratio works well. Given the inherent grain issues with high speed 16mm stock at the time (film stocks have come a long way since), the transfer here is remarkable. The grain is still evident, but is never intrusive and not enhanced in the manner of many inferior 16mm-to-digital transfers. The level of detail is very good, the colour natural without evidence of unnecessary enhancement, and the contrast feels about right, and this can be a difficult call given the range of lighting conditions in which the film was shot. Most surprising is the level of clarity to the night-shot footage – grain is heightened and colour information reduced, but for the first time on any home video format I could clearly see what was going on. There is some softness of picture in places, but given the sometimes restricted lighting and film format this is inevitable, and does not detract in any way. Once again, Criterion have done the film proud. The transfer is anamorphically enhanced.

The Dolby 1.0 mono soundtrack is true to the original and needs no remix, despite the extensive use of the folk songs of the coalfields, particularly the work of Hazel Dickens. The restrictions imposed by the locations occasionally make themselves known (camera noise can be heard in a couple of the interviews, for example), but on the whole the dialogue and music demonstrate an unexpectedly level of clarity and fidelity. Top marks again.

extra features

Given special edition status by Criterion, the included extras here more than justify that oft-misused label.

First up there is a commentary by producer-director Barbara Kopple and supervising editor Nancy Baker. This does not appear to be screen specific exactly, and sounds more like a couple of recorded interviews with the pair that have been edited to match the on-screen action. Either way this is a fascinating track, loaded with information on the production and its participants, as well as some intriguing post-production stories. Kopple regards the film as the most important of her career and the making the film as a political act, and sees the miners' wives as genuine role models. This is great stuff – informative and entertaining, it's an essential companion to the film.

The Making of 'Harlan County USA' (21:43) is a retrospective documentary on the production made specifically for this DVD, and includes interviews with a number of those involved in its production. A lot of ground is covered and the variety is engaging – Kopple talks about the film, the people and friendships, while coal miner Jerry Johnson remarks that they warmed to the young filmmakers in part because they looked poorer than the miners. There is some minor overlap with the commentary, but the addition of facial expression and gesture freshens the stories. There is some useful expansion on the technical information, and clarification on just how close one stand-off came to all-out slaughter.

Six Outtakes (26:17) are in their original 4:3 ratio and sometimes awash with dust and scratches, although these have been treated to reduce their prominence and the picture quality is otherwise admirable for what is essentially 'rescued' footage. All six are fascinating for different reasons, but my favourite sees Lois defending the local sheriff for his open support of their cause and lambasting those who sit on the fence and won't take sides in the fight.

The Hazel Dickens Interview (11:43) puts a face to the coal miner's daughter who provided some of the key songs for soundtrack. She talks about her early life, her start in music and reveals that she likes playing to a political audience. "Some of us," she says, "have to stand up and do what you believe in." Absolutely.

John Sayles on the Film (6:27) has one of America's most determinedly independent directors talking about the importance and effectiveness of Harlan County USA, including its influence on his later (and superb) Matewan, which chronicled the 1920 Matewan miners' strike and subsequent massacre. He also reveals that he generally prefers a good documentary to a dramatic feature.

Harlan County USA at Sundance (14:02) is a panel discussion held at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, where the film received a 30th anniversary screening. Hosted by a passionate Roger Ebert and featuring Kopple and cameraman Hart Perry, the floor is also given over briefly to two striking Utah miners (one talks in Spanish, which is subtitled), whose case provides evidence that the struggle is far from over. Kopple is clearly as passionate as ever.

The trailer (3:02) is in very good condition, considering its age. It's a good piece that sells the film really well.

Finally there is a 22-page booklet containing and insightful essay on the film by Paul Arthur, and an equally interesting one on the music by music journalist Jon Weisberger.

summary

It's heartening to see how just how good Harlan County USA still is – its message is as relevant as it ever was, and much of it feels surprisingly contemporary in style and structure. This is in no small part thanks of its influence on later documentary and even feature and television work, from the aforementioned Matewan and the TV movie Harlan County War (about the 'bloody Harlan' strike of the 1930s), to the stylistic urgency of Homicide: Life on the Street, three episodes of which Kopple directed.** The film receives exemplary treatment on Criterion's DVD, and should be considered a must-have for documentary enthusiasts and politically active film lovers everywhere.

 


* J.H. Blair was the sheriff of Harlan County during the 'Bloody Harlan' strike in 1931. He and his men were responsible for terrorising the striking miners, and one day turned up at the house of Sam Reece, a union organiser, and, not finding him home, ransacked the building, despite the presence of his wife Florence and their seven children. After waiting for Reece for some time with the intention of killing him, they departed, Florence wrote the song Which Side Are You On? on the back of a calender that very day as a response to the incident.

** These included the series 5 episode The Documentary, in which unit cameraman and documentary enthusiast Brody attempts a Direct Cinema-style documentary on the Homicide unit.

Harlan County USA

USA 1976
103 mins
director
Barbara Kopple

DVD details
region 1
video
1.78:1
sound
Dolby mono 1.0
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Director and editor's commentary
The Making of Harlan County USA documentary
Outtakes
Hazel Dickens interview
John Sayles interview
Harlan County USA at Sundance featurette
Trailer
Booklet
distributor
Criterion
release date
23 May 2006
review posted
23 June 2006

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Still the Enemy Within

See all of Slarek's reviews