“Harlan County USA:” A review of an influential documentary on its 40th anniversary

Editor’s note: This is the first of many “anniversary reviews” of great films of the past. Here, Dean Duncan reviews Harlan County, USA, winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1977. Sight and Sound magazine ranks Harlan County, USA 24th on its “Greatest Documentaries of All Time” list.

by Dean Duncan

Deepest, darkest Kentucky: generational poverty, generations of social inequality and economic disadvantage, hardship rooted down in the very bedrock. “Why don’t they just move?” asks one of our documentary film students. Someone asks that one every time. This next is not inevitable, though it’s very, very likely. The person who asks that question is almost always a prosperous political conservative, or at least the child of prosperous political conservatives.

“What if they don’t want to move?” answers one of our more sensitive, still ideologically undecided students. (She is also, often, the product of prosperous political conservatives.) harlan-county-usaThat question always comes up too. Though that first youth hasn’t thought it through this far, his question is like telling the abused child or altar boy that he can leave if he objects so much. Can he? If the abused and the brutalized can just leave, how come they hardly ever do? And just as importantly, leaving doesn’t quite address the underlying problem, does it?

And the second student? Her eyes are opened, her heart is rent—it’s usually a young woman—and she might not yet be asking the most fundamental question.

“What if they can’t move?”

These practically archetypal exchanges contain three great and terrible things. Here is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, as it were. Here is something like unto a primal scene, featuring the proliferation of want and ignorance, cruelty and injustice. I have been so fortunate, and with others in such privation!

That is one thing. The second is that here is every person’s necessary, exhilarating call to citizenship and activism. There is work to do! Third? Here also is the exhausted despair that seems always to lie at the end of that citizen’s road. So much sorrow, so much to do. So impossible!

And yet… The awesome Barbara Kopple, this film’s creator—its angelic Minister, really—may well be politically this or that. And make no doubt that politics are very harlan-county-usa-2important, because it is in the midst of our political activity that we evaluate, diagnose, prioritize,  and apply the correct physic to our social ills. But the vividness and ardour of the lives that Kopple portrays here, the depth of their difficulties, the principalities that are arrayed against them ultimately takes Harlan County, USA far outside of the realms of mere partisanship. And in fact, isn’t that true whether there’s a film or not? Doesn’t it apply whenever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy? Come on, Christians: we’re talking about discipleship here, about moral/ethical necessity! At some point your strident ideological sentiments become plain indecent.

The beautifully vivid characters that populate this blasted landscape provide the affluent viewer with real and salutary challenge. Like the raw music on the soundtrack, they are unapologetically themselves, warts and all. They are admirably resolute, eventually even magisterial (the lady with the barettes!). But they are not statues, and it is to her credit that Kopple includes their unsympathetic moments as well. They have a habit of scoffing at their foes in an unkind manner. Their lack of education and opportunity, alas, leads often to pettiness and ill manners. (And what, you might ask, is the excuse of the well-favoured?)

Here is the terrible and wonderful thing at once, the moral substance and weight of Kopple’s film. It’s shared by Robert Flaherty’s residential method, or the voluntary extended term of the service performed by the sons of Mosiah (cf. The Book of Mormon, Alma 17-26). When you stay you move from first impressions—terrible teeth, or the even the overly-idealized the-common-man’s-the-noblest-work-of-God (Burns, pub. 1786)—to impatience, and eventually to the complete picture, and finally to a hard won and immoveable regard.

And then, of course, it’s reality once again, and the general entropic flow of things. After all of the strikers’ progress, and our own empathetic advancement, it ends up that the union is run by gangsters. They are deposed and replaced, after a mighty battle. And then the almost certainly superior new regime lets our protagonists down as well, just as much or even more. And who can say, given that the needs of the few don’t always coincide with the well-being of the many, that they were wrong?

Untidily and appropriately, Harlan County ends with the actual who-knows muddle of history and actuality. Sometimes the best you can do still leads only to tangles, or worse. What’s the solution? What’s the point?! As the film concludes Kopple engages an elderly miner in a brief conversation, just as he prepares to go below once more. There’s a huge chaw in his cheek, and he observes with resigned good humour that it’s unlikely he’ll ever be able to retire. This is where this whole struggle started, isn’t it? And this is where it has ended, in the exact same dispiritingly inequitable place.

“Have a safe day,” she says.

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