The Adirondack Review
The St. Lawrence Book Award
The St. Lawrence Book Award
The St. Lawrence Book AwardThe St. Lawrence Book AwardThe St. Lawrence Book Award
The St. Lawrence Book Award
Over the last eighty years, Harlan County has been one of America’s most dissected geographical regions, literally a ground zero of Great Society meltdowns, where the forces of labor, industry, culture, and community lock step in an endless cycle of friction. A small list of such attention getters includes: the Bloody Harlan sagas of the 1930s; the War on Poverty and visits by both President Johnson and presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy; coverage of this “wasteland” county by major television networks pursuing investigative reports; trailblazing films like Stranger with a Camera and Harlan County; the recent popular American roots song “Harlan Man” by Steve Earle and Del McCoury; Harlan County War, a fictionalized 1990 film version of Kopple’s documentary; and oral documentaries like “I Can Almost See the Lights of Home: A Field Trip to Harlan County.” Under such scrutiny, this Appalachian “backwater” has become a litmus test for American values -- the need for raw resources has to be weighed against the native community’s ability to pursue and fulfill the American dream of a living wage and a future free of mistreatment and exploitation. Even though Barbara Kopple appears to use her film to offer up a humanistic portrayal of honorable people dealing with corruption, repression, media attention, and a tumultuous era in general, she actually paints an ideological portrait that is one-sided and distancing. Thus, her film is more ideological than idealistic, and it suffers from an almost one-dimensional approach defined by agit-prop tendencies.
One of the first interesting issues to be raised when discussing the film is how the film relates to both film history and genre. For one, the opening sequence of the film, depicting miners descending by conveyor belt into the long dark esophagus of the coal pit, can be viewed as an unconscious homage to the dawn of film – Lumiere’s 46 second “Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory” from 1895. However, many a film viewer, whether in the 1970s or today, is likely to understand the toll of factories that use such coal on both communities and the environment, whether it is churches and rivers blackened in William Blake’s poem “London” or the Manchester myopia to be explored in the newly released film “Control,” a band biopic of Joy Division set in 1979. Meanwhile, the contemporary “Generation Y” is gripped by ecological concerns, made readily visible by Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize. So, these Harlan mines, once considered the backbone of America, are now almost pariahs of sorts, a grimy nod to the pre-digital era. Coal miners may still die on the job at a startling rate, but the future lies in a resurrected nuclear industry and a nexus of wind, solar, and hydropower, albeit there is room for “clean” coal technologies. Therefore, although Kopple’s film is just over thirty years old, the old industrial-economy that she steadfastly documents is a relic of America before downsizing, outsourcing, and the surge of the soft economy; therefore, to some young viewers, Harlan County is as distant as the age of Lumiere.
In addition, the film seems to fit squarely alongside the tradition of neo-realist, pro-labor films like Salt of the Earth, a 1954 film about striking Mexican American workers in the Southwest, which explores the lives of workers who toil daily to provide sustenance for themselves and resources for a booming post-war America at the same time. As disenfranchised minorities in a country riddled by bigotry, they receive little recompense or respect. Their boulevard of dreams is no more than another day struggling in the cracked, dry earth. In the case of Kopple’s miners, the face of labor looks like a troupe of weary, bedraggled, black-faced vaudevillians. As one African American states in the film, in the Harlan County mines, it didn’t matter what color a miner was when entering the mine. Upon exiting, he was filthy, a living incubator for black lung. The soot became a leveling force, reducing all men to mere victims. They are fodder, worth less than mules, as one miner recalls.
The film also harkens back to the aesthetic of films like Grapes of Wrath, which zeroed in on the “everyman” figure of Tom Joad. In a gender reversal, Kopple chooses to explore a miner’s wife, replete with a pistol in her bra, who stands up against not only the unrelenting forces of the “captains of industry” but against the self-identified company “foreman” who attacks the strikers and tries to incite racist violence. Thus, not all miners are the same, at least in the eyes of the strikebreakers. A vexing color issue -- race baiting -- hangs over the community, which is exposed when the forearm/thug uses the word “nigger,” only to be met with the heated disdain of Lois Scott, a prominent, outspoken, and fearless wife of one of the strikers. So, although the film does dissect labor and capitalism, racism also figures prominently as a subtext in the film. In Harlan County, not every man, or woman, is the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s “sameness made equal,” which he espoused in “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The color barrier still existed, well beyond the pall of the coal dust.
Understood within the context of its own time, the film seems to straddle the genres of both cinema verite and post-verite film. As in verite, Kopple emphasizes the notion of filmmakers being not just observers of action but being part of the fabric of action, even if that means producing blurred footage, jumpy frames, and ill-lit sequences. This vividly occurs when one cameraperson is knocked over by “thugs” while filming the picket line being attacked, or at least broken, by strikebreakers bearing weapons. Stylistically woven into the film, it feels somewhat indebted to D. A. Pennebaker, whose films feel like they are both eavesdropping on and inevitably linked to the action on screen. However, Kopple does not pretend, as Sharon Sherman notes in her Documenting Ourselves: Film, Video, and Culture section on postverite, “to be art masquerading as objectivity” (1998: 27). In her politicized bent, Kopple truly identifies with the workers. Her crew slept at the homes of strikers and ate food provided by their families. This approach also reflects the philosophy, and inherent “possible weakness,” of observational cinema, in which a film is “based on an intimate, sympathetic relationship between the filmmaker and the subject – not the eye of the aloof, detached observer but of someone watching as much as possible from the inside” (Colin Young 1975: 76-77). Moments of reflexivity do occur infrequently. Kopple chooses to use footage that includes boom mics and boom operators lolling around a shot. Thus, a viewer may presume that the filmmaker intended this as a presentation, a construction of a crew, and an event being documented and even shaped by that documentation. Such tendencies can be traced back to the reflexive modes established by Vertov. Kopple is not objective; she is not just a neutral fly on the wall. The camera is an extension, as it were, of her ideology at that place, in that time. Hence, one might label such a film postverite or utterly subjective to some degree.
Still, that is problematic too. She likely did not choose to have her subjects become part of the editing process, which even pioneering filmmaker Robert Flaherty did, though Kopple might have done some consulting with the miners. I cannot state in definitive terms that she was seeking to undermine the so-called truth or objectivity of documentary filmmaking in general, which has some links, as least in ethnographic terms, to analyzing and subverting colonialism. Postverite filmmakers often explore ways to open up and redefine the whole style and approach of documentaries, or as Sherman posits, simply “to reveal the illusion” (27). Also, her reflexivity is very limited, especially when compared to extended sequences in Stranger with a Camera. In contrast, Elizabeth Barrett’s film actively exposes the whole nature of the biographer as being both an insider and outsider by examining the role of her and her accompanying crew with candid honesty. For instance, she films her crew, with all their equipment exposed, recording a fiddler. She deftly explores her own autobiography, combining voice-overs with newsreel footage and personal interviews to show Harlan County not in just one fixed approach – a place of the beleaguered and the beaten – but as a place that mixes the flux of a modern middle-class consumer life with long-held rural traditions and identities. In fact, compared with Kopple, Barrett seems to be more self-aware and political in the post-modern sense.
For Kopple, who originally intended to make a movie about the UMWA elections and ended up covering deep-rooted corruption and villainy on both sides of the labor divide, the story of Harlan County really ends up being an extension of the stories told a decade earlier by the likes of major American television networks, the BBC, and the CBC. For instance, Kopple reveals a woman bathing her child in a cramped metal tub no bigger than a simple pail. She continually emphasizes the dingy truck with a sound horn blaring through small neighborhoods mired in cheap tract housing and dirt roads. All the miners have desperation and defiance carved across their faces. She emphasizes the wear and tear from a hard life and endless cigarette smoking. Kopple offers only one visit to the county seat, where the buildings made of glass, steel, and concrete form an almost abstract jungle of commerce and law. Such facades bear down on the large, boisterous, UMWA union march. Yet, there is no sense of how the “other half” operates in these buildings. Instead, viewers are subjected, like the strikers, to the bully foreman with his pistol always clumsily hanging out of his pocket who symbolizes the “rude arm” of these abstractions, or the mine operators, whose steely, stiff reserve is terribly awkward as they offer lip service at news conferences and stockholders meetings. Even worse, the company doctor, beyond all common sense, downplays the connection between inhaled dust and cancer.
No doubt, these were conscious decisions on the part of Kopple, perhaps to remain focused and consistent, or to use her time frame to hone in on the endless cycles of worker distress as the local branch of the union pursued a new contract that satisfied both the companies and the new union leadership, but it also signifies that Kopple is simply an outsider, treating the region in a manner not much more nuanced than the national news corporations a decade earlier. She is even able to distill a Hollywood style showdown, a dramatic arch, which epitomizes and even minimizes the conflict, in the characters of the foreman and the miner’s wife Lois Scott, whom associate director Anne Lewis in The Making of Harlan County likened to a Women’s Liberation activist (2004: Criterion Collection). Both take up weapons, both occupy different sides of the local terrain and local hearts and minds, and both sides are eager to show their willingness to sacrifice themselves to ensure victory. This basic sub-plot structure and incisive sense of drama echoes back to black and white gangster, noir, and western movies, even journalism dating back most famously in union circles to John Reed (Mexico in Flames, 10 Days That Shook the World, etc). Hence, this method can be viewed as an anachronistic, outdated, and even reactionary device when compared to the leanings of a director like Barrett.
Some viewers might suggest that Kopple is not showing the same raw, unmitigated suffering of Appalachian people that producers from the 1960s readily exploited in the form of photographing filthy, malnourished children, illiterate porch dwellers, and scenes of wrecked and abandoned autos piled up like the detritus of an industrial era gone wrong. Still, despite being dubbed “exploitative,” these images from the 1960s fueled liberal concerns and helped shape the policies of the War on Poverty. Indeed, the producers went in, did not take sides, and left again, giving the people a false sense of hope, just as one miner stated in Stranger with a Camera. However, I argue that Kopple takes nearly the same approach. Granted, the hardship and hardscrabble life is not as severe because ten years passed. There was a War on Poverty, which had lifted some people out of the direst conditions. To be sure, in Kopple’s film, the streets are a bit cleaner. At least, the ones that she chose to shoot are.
A central issue with Kopple’s approach includes the absences in her film -- the great unbridgeable gaps. MacDougall suggests that these absences taint films in general, since “the camera tends to lie but the audience has a tendency to believe . . . Film has a tendency to appear plausible, and thus to diminish the importance of what it ignores” (1975: 66). Kopple seems to ignore, thus diminish, several key issues: the convergence of technologies, including strip mining; the people’s complex relationship to the land, including their own properties or recreational habits; and the equally varied and complex interface between different communities and social classes living side by side in close proximity in this cradle and crucible of America. Lastly, and most importantly, Kopple never reveals the energy crisis gripping America during the mid-1970s, including the long fuel lines, discussions of energy independence, and an impending political election in which the President would urge people to wear sweaters and turn down their heat, whether oil, gas, or coal. Hence, the consumers are never brought into focus. Yet, if middle-class and mobile consumers in this country, who were hungry for endless energy, had not become more privileged as the gap between rich and poor widened during the early 1970s, then the need for coal would not have been as pressing. If the country’s energy needs had not been growing and expanding, one could cast doubt that a member of Richard Nixon’s cabinet would have negotiated one-on-one with the union and coal producers.
Kopple’s film paints a rather narrow, class-based, neo-Marxist portrait of “us versus them,” a precursor to films like Norma Ray. In fact, the entire film is hinged to a musical theme: the endearing and punchy “Which Side Are You on Boys?” In the film, the original writer of the song speaks to a large union meeting and later sings the tune. Even though the woman’s voice is warbly and cracked, the quickly animated room swells with the spirit of workers past and present. There is little doubt which side Kopple is on. Kopple is even asked, “Will you be on the picket line in the morning?” while filming one sequence. The strikers treat her as an insider whose cameras can provide documentation of the thug’s tactics; for instance, there may be a connection, though it is unstated, between Koppel’s crew shooting the scene in which the union foreman shoots his pistol from the cab of his truck and the sheriff receiving a warrant for his arrest the next morning as the agitator tries to break the picket line with carloads of scabs. However, the viewers never get access to the foreman’s story, nor do they get access to the story of the men who gather at gas stations and bridges with sticks, pistols, and (if viewers are to believe the union strikers) a machine gun, the presence of which is never authenticated. Kopple does not find it necessary to research and explore the issue, perhaps for the sake of safety, or perhaps because it did not truly exist. The truth is elusive, and she is not acting as a journalist.
Thus, the scabs and foreman become Straw Men, easy to dislike and villanize, while the union members, who do at times break the law and try to block roads and even kick cars, are valorized. This duality may be appealing, especially when contrasting the nature of the “crimes,” but it is over-simplified, one-sided, and rather dubious in the age of postverite. In some ways, such an approach is just as problematic as John Gardner making films in a pseudo-ethnographic style even after his approach had been criticized and unmasked as preposterous, false, and self-serving by a whole new generation of ethnographers and scientists. In turn, Barrett is more even-handed, choosing to interview crew and family members that relate to the assassinated CBC newscaster and both the community and family of the man who shot him. Indeed, since the prime suspect was deceased, in some ways it is like reading “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner, in which the actions of “poor Miss Emily” are reconstructed by the townspeople, who have a vested interested in keeping her secrets.
The workers in Kopple’s film seem only to be connected to a cycle of unrest and endless struggle with each other, with the scabs, and with the coal producers, and even with the national union. I do not belittle their actions or intent. Indeed, they are more than justified. Yet, there is no sense that there exists a set of people on the other side whose stories have not been told, in the least -- no sense of the relationship these miners have to the land, other than to excavate raw material for an insatiable country. There is no sense that consumerism in general, and geo-political friction in the Middle East, has led to an acute crisis over natural resources. No discussion that this coal was itself a blight of sorts on the country’s environment. Kopple does paint a very humane portrait of miners in plight as their bodies wither. She paints a portrait of common people overcoming huge obstacles and defending their rights to work in safety and be rewarded for their toils. Yet, she does so at the expense of telling a more complete, more well-rounded, and more insightful narrative. Instead, she offers a limited, partisan, and advocacy-based vision of the land and the people, thus diminishing her overall effect, which is to paint a deep and resonant portrait of people bound by work, a profound sense of place, and longstanding tradition.

The Canary in the Coal Mine with the Camera:

Harlan County and the Limits of Advocacy Films

by David Ensminger
DAVID ENSMINGER was born under a plastic Missouri sun in the skinny shadows of trailer parks until his family fled to corn row Illinois, where he began self-publishing poetry and music zines with the help of clunky Xerox machines when he wasn't playing drums in punk bands. He attended seven colleges and universities, stuffing America under his belt while publishing in underground chapbooks and journals like Extra Cheese, Subbild, Lilliput Review, Flower, Caveat Lector, In the Throes, Fuel, and Poesflesh. As a music journalist, he has written for Cowboys and Indians, Thirsty Ear, Houston Press, and Maximum Rock'n'Roll, while in 1999, he started his own music magazine, Left of the Dial, which can be found online. He is currently studying folklore and completing a book on punk art and culture at the University of Oregon University.