Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site, and we’re happy to present them to you now.
Harlan County USA
“In the landscape of the American documentary film, there are few films as a harrowing and heartbreaking as Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976), which explores the effects and aftermath of a 1973 strike by coal miners against the Duke Power Company in Harlan County, Kentucky. Unlike many documentary films, which are shot over a matter of weeks or months, Kopple’s film took years to complete, during which time she covered the strike from every conceivable angle. She followed the miners in their daily lives, living with them and sharing in their struggle, and soon became a part of the strike itself; Harlan County, USA is thus a film in which the filmmaker shared in the struggle with the film’s protagonists, and the intensity of her involvement with the project is manifest in every frame of the film.
Born in Scarsdale, New York in 1946, Barbara Kopple attended Northeastern University, majoring in psychology, but soon became interested in film, and worked with the Maysles Brothers on some of their earlier projects to hone her skills. Like her contemporaries Frederick Wiseman and The Maysles Brothers, Kopple elected to simply shoot the film and see what happened, without adding narration to help to shape the flow of the narrative. Kopple filmed Harlan County, USA in an atmosphere of unrelenting violence; the company hires thugs to break up the union, and the union fights back in kind.
When a young miner is killed during a fight brought about by the strike, the company and the union are finally forced by the public outcry to the bargaining table. Kopple’s continual presence on the scene also played a factor; indeed, many of the miners after the fact credited Kopple with being a decisive factor in ending the strike. The film was released in 1976, and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1977. It was Kopple’s first feature length film as a director.
In the aftermath of the success of Harlan County, USA, Kopple went on to a variety of projects, but stayed true to her organizing roots with the 1990 film American Dream, documenting a similarly heart-rending strike at a Hormel meat packing plant in Minnesota in the late 1980s; as with Harlan County, USA, the film took many years to shoot, and when it was finally released in 1990, it, too, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991.
Kopple’s numerous other projects include Keeping On (1981), a dramatized account of a strike at a textile mill; Civil Rights: The Struggle Continues (1989), a documentary marking the 25th anniversary of the killings of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in 1964; and in a lighter vein, the documentary Wild Man Blues (1998), which follows director Woody Allen and his Dixieland band on a tour of Europe, with remarkably revealing results. Eclectic, evolving, and continually searching for new subjects, Barbara Kopple keeps working in both the commercial and independent cinema, resolutely independent, answering only to herself.” — Gwendolyn Audrey Foster