Sunday, January 15, 2023

Doc Watch: Harlan County, USA (1976)

Watched:  01/14/2023
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Director:  Barbara Kopple

One of the things I wonder about as The Kids have decided that labor movements are a fine idea and that they should unionize is if they're well educated on the incredibly bloody history of labor movements in the US.  I'm not recommending one path or the other (I am, but this isn't that blog) but things tend to get really dark when the operators see the minions getting organized.  

To a 20-something working at Starbucks in 2022 or 2023, it may seem like the good fight, but in the places Starbucks tends to exist, you can usually just pick up and go work somewhere else if the deal isn't what you want.  And, of course, 1972 is ancient history when old-timey things happened.  Like the events of the documentary, Harlan County, USA (1976) a film about striking coal minors in Kentucky and the various factors at play and persons involved. And it's as far removed from today's labor conversations and the way work once worked in the US as the Pullman Strike is to organizing baristas.

For those familiar with the history of mines and strikes, which swiftly becomes part of one's education if you study US History, this looks familiar.  And because it happened in a period adjacent to my own lifetime, it feels far more present than reading about such activities in books.  But, yeah, the miners want better representation from their union (who is painfully and obviously corrupted) and the Feds (the oversight of mines feels wildly compromised), aren't getting it until an election finally occurs, and then a strike unfolds.  And violence and the threat of violence spills out.  

The thing which is not obvious is that the catalyst for the doc happening was the murder of a gentleman running against the company-approved President of the union who had been in power for years, and seemed to think this was the natural order of things - that he knew what was best for the miners.  But, yeah, a union election wound up including a murder of a man, his wife and daughter.  So the stakes here are wildly high as the union also sees armed thugs appear, threatening them and shooting into their homes.

Mostly the film tracks the conversations between the miners and the wives and mothers of miners, who are even more at the mercy of the mining company than their own husbands, but it also looks in on medical treatment and those suffering from black lung, and looks into prior incidents in mines that could have been prevented with more precautions from the mining company.  Throw in the fact the Feds and local law-enforcement are on the side of the owners, and it's utterly crushing watching the miners try to move the ball forward - let alone their wives with spines of steel.

With a soundtrack of Appalachian labor and traditional songs, the movie focuses more or less on the side of the miners.  There's not a lot of both-sides-ism, but it doesn't take much to guess what would be said as the doc sits in on shareholder and other meetings where the miners themselves seem an after thought, and the cost of lives is the cost of business for men in New York counting nickels and dimes.  

Before the film has ended, the crew itself is attacked.

Mining of course continues to be an issue.  Some have declared coal mining a way of life that must be protected, and there may be something to that - even as technology offers us alternatives, the geological and environmental impacts become obvious, and its not hard to see the folks who know no other way of life being used as pawns in political machinery working beyond the scope of their situation.  This movie seems to sit somewhere between the strikes of the 100 years before and the shift to the political movements that somehow shifted the miners to side with the anti-union forces (given how inept the unions seem here, one gets a clue as to why they'd throw their hands in the air).  

But I don't need to point out the relevance and quality of the film.  It shows up regularly on "best of" doc lists, it's in the Library of Congress, etc..  

At this point, I would recommend it not just for working as a piece of successful journalism, but also for connecting the 19th century to the 21st, and a fascinating portrait of a geographically isolated area and closed culture that rarely is seen except as cartoonish backdrops in film.  Instead, these people and their real situation is brought to the fore in living color.  And, frankly, the open villainy you would think was too unsubtle for a movie is right there on display.

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