by Geo Ong
In 1973, a group of coal miners and their wives in Harlan County, Kentucky, went on strike against Duke Power Company, which owned the local Brookside Mine and Prep Plant. The 13-month strike known as the ‘Brookside Strike’ and, when events grew more violent over time, ‘Bloody Harlan,’ was a fight for safer working conditions, fair labour practices, and fair wages.
The strike became the subject of a documentary called Harlan County USA. Filmmaker Barbara Kopple, about 27 years old when the strike began, was in Harlan County with her film crew on another mission. Her original aim was to document the attempted unseating of Tony Boyle, then president of the United Mine Workers of America. The strike unfolded before her eyes, and she knew that this was the actual story she wanted to document.
Harlan County USA was then released in 1976, earning Kopple an Academy Award for Best Documentary, and is now part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. A couple of weeks ago, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) screened the documentary for one night, with Kopple in attendance for a Q&A. I took a seat in the theatre with a head full of feeling, having just come back from my first visit to Liberty Plaza.
The film is a fine example of gritty, do-it-yourself, guerrilla filmmaking. Kopple and her brave crew spent over a year interviewing the parties involved, from coal miners suffering from black lung to gun thugs working for the coal company to break the picket line to the miners’ fearless wives. The film crew was often there on the picket line, in just as much danger as the strikers were from being hit by moving vehicles and shot by guns.
One scene in particular brought on a rather tangible collective understanding from the audience, of which I was glad to be a part. The scene took place on Wall Street. A group of striking miners made the trip from Harlan County to New York City to make their voices heard. One miner has a fairly amiable conversation with a police officer stationed there to keep the peace, convincing him of the dangers of his job and the reasons for striking. When told how much the miner earns, the police officer is flabbergasted. ‘I make more than that!’ In a sincere effort to assuage the officer, the miner says, ‘Isn’t your job real dangerous though?’ The cop shakes his head: ‘Look at me. This is all I do. It’s all bullshit.’
Harlan County USA still frequently gets screened for various labour movement organisations. It couldn’t have been screened at BAM at a more appropriate time, something which Kopple and the entire audience understood before the film even began. Harlan County USA is a film about fighting for what you want. The strikers did it. Kopple and her crew did it. And it shows that this fight remains in our hearts, ready to come out during difficult times.