Rewind Film Series: Harlan County USA (1976)
We’re about to write some words about Harlan County USA, Barbara Kopple’s electrifiying documentary about a grueling and violent Kentucky coal miners’ strike in 1973. But to be honest, you’re probably better off simply reading this. It’s a better write-up than we’d be able to produce, and it’s longer than we could responsibly post here. So go do that, and then come back and buy tickets. Heck, buy your tickets first!
Since you’re still here, we’ll do our level best not to let you or this incredible movie down. Harlan County USA is a personal, passionate, unflinching revelation of a film. Actively rejecting the impersonal, fly-on-the-wall structure that most “high-brow” nonfiction film up to that point used, director Barbara Kopple instead put herself in front of her subjects – and her feelings in front of impartiality. Impartiality in film is an elaborate lie, anyway. It’s impossible to make a movie without choosing what it’s about, at the very least, and that act of choosing is subjective. Even if you’re Andy Warhol making Empire, the most well-known exploration of a cinematic window on the world supposedly unsullied by human hands, you chose what to point the camera at and when to turn it on. Shedding that pseudo-requirement for impartial delivery of just the facts, Kopple digs deeply into the lived experience of the people she’s filming. It’s a world entirely unfamiliar to us now, as it would have been to most of the people seeing it on its initial release (it is still the only nonfiction film to have played the New York Film Festival, won an Academy Award, and been granted a listing on the National Film Registry). That experiential distance, captured with gentle and intimate familiarity, lets the audience invest themselves in a struggle they might otherwise have dismissed or ignored. It brings debate-team political principles into bloody, existential focus. It’s impossible to leave this movie unmoved, in one way or the other. As they say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.