I think the strength of Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA” lies in how Kopple approaches the subject matter. This approach is immediately seen in the title of the film, “Harlan County, USA.” The film is a documentary about the “Brookside Strike,” a dual effort by the coal miners of Harlan County and their wives to receive a better contract. To clarify, the coal-miners are abused by the corporation which owns the mine, ultimately, the Duke Power Company; the miners are forced to work long hours for low pay, are given low retirement stipends, and worst of all, are given no form of healthcare, leaving many miners who are injured on the job or receive the infamous “black lung,” to fend for themselves.
For Kopple to title the film “Harlan County, USA” and not something like “The Coal Miner’s Plight,” or to a lesser extent, “The Brookside Strike,” consequently means that the film isn’t just about the miners, but the people of Harlan County. As I stated in the plot summary above, the strike was a joint effort by the miners and their wives. Kopple spends a considerable amount of time with each group, whether they’re planning various methods to protest or on the picket line in the process of striking.
The result of Kopple’s method is an extremely keen documentary that allows the audience to understand just how far-reaching into the community the conflict is. The miners have families that depend on them and so the status of their job plays a significant role in the lives of their wives and children. At one point in the film, an argument breaks out between two of the wives when one of them feels that the other is not putting in enough work. The accused wife then begins to talk about a rumor that her accuser is running around sleeping with other husbands. At this point, a third woman joins the argument and says:
“I don’t care who takes whose man, who lives with whose man or what they do. If they can take mine and take him on, they can have him. I’ll shed no tears. I’m not after a man. I’m after a contract. I’m raisin’ two boys. I tell you. We can’t let our brothers down. We gotta stand on solid ground. And then we’re gonna go through. (59:30:00).”
That quote is exemplary of why the need for a better contract isn’t just a problem for the miners, but the entire community, and Kopple is there all throughout the film to capture moments just like this one.