I go to bat for documentaries because they can't go to bat for themselves.
This isn't a statement on the quality of non-fiction films through history. On the contrary, and especially if one was to judge the last half-decade exclusively, documentaries are consistently excellent, innovative, informative, and emotionally satisfying.
Why then do they rarely get brought up in discussions of the greatest cinema has to offer? No documentary has ever been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and none is included in the AFI Top 100 list. [Hell, the organization went out of its way to only consider narrative features.]
I'm not foolish enough to think these citations [or lack thereof] are harbingers of any sort of cinematic taste, but when thinking about a film I wanted to highlight at the dawn of this endeavor, I thought I'd give the doc some love.
Barbara Kopple's Harlan County U.S.A. has always lingered with me for the way it so delicately depicts the struggle of the working man. It's a film of such a specific place, but also one completely out of time---the wages, working conditions, and dress all screen early 1970s, yet the white-collar wall these blue-collar individuals must climb is as enormous and intimidating now as it was then.
The film takes place in the titular Kentucky county and chronicles a strike by coal miners [and notably, their wives] who are seeking, among other things we consider basic necessities today [like dental insurance], a contract with a right to strike. The mining company’s owners insist upon a no-strike clause, and when the picketing begins, the company brings in scabs and “gun thugs” to both replace the striking workers and intimidate them. Eventually, the conflict escalates, and blood is shed.
Interestingly, Kopple originally set out to tell a different story. That plays out in truncated form during Harlan County U.S.A.’s middle third. A man named Tony Boyle was the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and in the late 1960s, there was a movement underway to unseat him. His chief rival was a man named Joseph Yablonski, but on New Year’s Eve in 1969, Yablonski, his wife, and their daughter were murdered in their Pennsylvania home. Boyle was eventually charged and convicted of first-degree murder; he hired two men to do the job.
Kopple filmed material to make this documentary, but when she made her way to Kentucky, she decided the story there was more interesting than the one outlined above. If you haven’t seen Harlan County, does it have your attention now?
An advocate for the rights of workers for most of her life and career, Kopple revisited the subject of unions and striking workers more than a decade later with 1992’s American Dream. It’s missing the emotional immediacy of Harlan County, but it dives a bit deeper into the complex politics of, in this case, a meatpackers’ union. [It’s also something I’ll be exploring in some detail later this week.]
Besides the incredibly authentic music that drives much of Harlan County, the scene many will point at to demonstrate this emotional immediacy takes place at a funeral. Without saying any more about it---it’s 40 years old this year, but I’m a friend of the spoiler-phobic---but it’s a sobering reminder that behind all political issues and debates are people and families trying to make better lives for themselves and those they love.
Very few traditional talking-head docs pack as much raw humanity as this verite one does, nevermind narrative films. Why? Because you can’t write real life.
So it’s Harlan County U.S.A. week at The Cinessential---our first week devoted to a documentary. Here’s a look at what you can expect from my colleagues and I:
- A look at the group of unexpected heroes in the film, the community's women
- Deep dive into how music plays in the film and its subjects' lives
- A Related Review of an underseen gem from the director of Harlan County, U.S.A.
- Our streaming recommendations for other great docs directed by women