On June 30, the miners walked out, beginning a strike that was to last 13 months. Emotions on both sides ramped up as the strike progressed, with wives and other miner supporters joining the strikers on the picket lines, and the potential for violence, most specifically gun violence, becoming more blatant. People have only a 50-50 chance of living in a home with plumbing. We see them facing down the state troopers, forcing the sheriff to arrest the mine foreman, dealing with their own flagging spirits, and gearing up for yet one more confrontation. Miller sells out, so the film seems to say, but maybe not. This technique of slow disclosure is used so much that it must be intentional. The film shows a hilarious confrontation between a picket and a sympathetic New York cop. “Burning Up People to Make Electricity,” Fred Harris, The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1974. Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) Plot Summary (4) A filmed account of a bitterly violent miner strike. This having been said, it remains true that HARLAN COUNTY, USA’s strength is not in its analysis but in its passion.
The one or two shots that do remind us of the iconography of the 1930s—the thin, pinched faces, sunken cheeks, round eyes of men who have worked long and hard for too little to eat, who have seen too little of the sun and known too little joy—merely serve to remind us how far we are from that frozen world of dignified poverty. Much of my information about the strike is drawn from Harris’s material. If they do live long enough to enter school, they will be poorly educated. Yablonsky and his family are murdered on Boyle’s orders, but the election is eventually won by the Miners for Democracy candidate, Arnold Miller. HARLAN COUNTY, USA may not have all the answers or even raise all the questions, but it does show us, in case we have forgotten, the strength and power of the people.
As the strike drags on, the miners find out that they confront not only the company but the police and the courts as well. movie theaters are playing Harlan County, U.S.A. near you. Its editing is ragged; its narrative structure is confusing and begins to unravel towards the end. Later, when he settles for a no-strike clause, ironically the issue over which the Brookside strike was fought, he is nicely relegated to the rear of the frame, while the foreground is given over to an angry miner who attacks the settlement. Most of them learned it back in the 1930s, or imbibed it with their mothers’ milk. Kopple adopts a TV news approach, polling miners as they go back to work. The company gives in; the strike is over. Contracts varied from mine to mine, with pay scales ranging from $17 to $32 a day, as compared to $45 per day for miners represented by the United Mine Workers of America.
It cloaks its failure to deal with the problem of Miller in truisms about the necessity of ongoing struggle.