Seek Not Your Fortune in the Dark, Dreary Mine

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) Documentary Directed by Barbara Kopple

To view Harlan County, U.S.A. click here.

I tend to romanticize cinema verité filmmakers as rugged individualists who fearlessly shoot their footage under the most difficult of circumstances. Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock—I see them as verité cowboys. Also included in that club is Barbara Kopple, who directed Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) currently streaming on FilmStruck. Harlan County, U.S.A. won an Oscar as Best Documentary and was placed on the National Film Registry in 1990. And, if you want to talk fearless, Kopple’s experiences while making the film reveals she could hold her own as a verité cowboy.

Cinema verité dominated documentary filmmaking from the 1960s to the early 1980s; its goal was an unobtrusive approach, using observation as a primary tool. The phrase most often used to describe verité is “fly on the wall,” to suggest that the filmmakers sought to interfere as little as possible with their subject. Part of the process involved getting to know the subject through a consistent presence and long-term observation. That entailed a level of commitment on the part of the filmmaker that could last for months. I once saw a verité documentary on Senator Ted Kennedy’s attempts to change legislation on immigration during the last years of his life. The filmmakers spent almost 12 years on the project.

Kopple’s film documents a strike at the Brookside Mine located in Harlan County, Kentucky—nicknamed Bloody Harlan after the knock-down, drag-out mine wars of the 1930s. The Brookside Mine, which was operated by the Eastover Mining Company and owned by Duke Power, had an accident rate three times the national average. If a miner was injured, it could take an hour to carry him out on the back of another miner who had to double over or crouch in places where the roof of the mine was only four feet high. Such conditions prompted the miners to join the United Mine Workers of America in 1973, but Eastover would not recognize a contract with the UMW. The Brookside miners made the difficult decision to strike.

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Kopple began shooting the events of the strike in 1973, though her interest in the lives of miners began in November 1968 when she saw headlines about a mine explosion in Mannington, West Virginia, that killed 78 men. The methane gas that caused the explosion was so deadly that the mine was sealed, and their bodies were never recovered. I know a lot about that disaster. My grandfather had worked at Consol #9 for many years, and, though I was very young, the look on his face as he recognized the names of the dead still haunts me. That disaster is referenced in Harlan County, U.S.A. through news footage and interviews. The use of archival footage as well as direct interviews represent a departure from pure cinema verité, but even the Maysles Brothers occasionally broke the verité rules if it served the subject matter.

Fully committed to her subject, Kopple, cameraman Hart Perry and assistant director Anne Lewis moved to Harlan County and lived with the striking miners in their homes for at least 18 months. They shot union meetings, picket lines, funerals for miners killed in the struggle and confrontations with scabs and organized gun thugs employed by Duke. These confrontations were not mere shouting matches but actual shoot-outs in which miners were beaten and shot. The climactic confrontation occurs at dawn near a bridge leading to the mine. But there is little footage included of the event, which seems chaotic and unresolved. The reason is that Kopple, Perry and Lewis were grabbed, shaken or beaten by the thugs who were trying to escort the scab workers into the mine. In interviews in Jump Cut magazine, Kopple recalled how one thug pushed her into the brush intending to do bodily harm, but she fended him off by swinging her camera at him like a weapon. That’s actually a good metaphor, because Kopple insisted that the presence of the camera at many events was perceived as a deterrent, preventing emotional exchanges from escalating into something more.

In case you think Kopple was exaggerating when she made this claim during an interview, consider the acts of violence committed by the coal company on the miners and their families that are referenced in the film. Ex-cons were hired by the company to beat up miners and to shoot directly into their houses. Koppel recalled that miners began to shove mattresses against the walls to protect occupants. One miner was shot in the face by a scab and killed. Keep in mind that local law officers, judges and the state police were in the pockets of Duke Power. The miners were not protected by social institutions; they were on their own.

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) Documentary Directed by Barbara Kopple

When the miners were hampered by strike prohibitions, their wives, daughters and mothers stepped in to walk the picket line and face authorities while still taking care of their families and homes. They even mixed it up with the gun thugs, yelling right into their faces. Though they didn’t always like each other, and sometimes hiss and spat during meetings, the women supported the strike despite the danger. An image of one of the strike leaders tucking a .38 inside her bra sums up their grit and spunk. The verité style allowed an up-close view of their daily lives, their girl talk, their rivalries, their courage. I can’t help but think that the film would have been different if a male director had been at the helm.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the pride miners take in doing this job, a point that Kopple’s film suggests in the opening sequence as David Morris sings “Dark as a Dungeon” on the soundtrack. Not only is it a dangerous occupation but it is one that requires miners to do something every day that goes against human instinct. And, they know this. Harlan County, U.S.A. opens with a miner underground where the ceiling is less than four-feet high and the only light comes from his tiny helmet lamp. He preps for the other miners who enter the mine by belly-flopping on a conveyer belt that plunges them into the claustrophobic blackness. It takes nerve that most of us simply don’t have.

Today, the contribution of coal and other fossil fuels to climate change has cast the industry in a negative light—miners included. So after decades of combative relationships with an industry that never did enough for their basic safety or well-being, miners now struggle to hang on to their jobs in a shifting energy marketplace. In the meantime, opponents of coal seek to destroy their livelihood all together with little consideration for the impact on the miners or their communities. Coal still generates about a third of electricity used in this country, so we are still dependent on it to power our homes and many technological devices. I try to remember those miners, as well as my grandfather, uncles and cousin who worked in the mines, every time I flick on a light switch.

Susan Doll

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3 Responses Seek Not Your Fortune in the Dark, Dreary Mine
Posted By Moira Finnie : October 9, 2017 5:55 am

Thank you for your vivid account of the atmosphere surrounding this film’s production. Your grandfather would be proud that you have continued to bear witness so eloquently to the sacrifices that he made and that other miners continue to make. This post moved me, Suzy.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 9, 2017 10:08 am

Thank you, Moira. Much appreciated.

Posted By Doug : October 9, 2017 7:06 pm

A fine post examining a turbulent time-to be true fair, in other situations the ‘thugs and excons’ may be employed by Unions
to advance their agendas.
An interesting note-in the Bible, Job 28:1-11 has a description of miners working underground. The more times change, the more they stay the same, right?
Some might argue that for ‘cinema verité’, to be honest and, well, true…the film makers should be unbiased to the point where, as they present the story, the audience has no idea which side the film maker favors, who they consider devil or angel.
Has that ever happened? Can anyone recall a documentary which only captures the events as they happen, leaving it to the audience member to decide who is right?
Thank you, Susan, for this thought provoking work.
Right now I am working my way through a TV series from 1957-1958 called “Decoy” starring Beverly Garland as a police detective. I mention it here as it was the first TV production filmed in New York City, and it happens to ‘document’ that city in that time, right before the world changed in the 1960′s.
It’s also noted as the ‘first’ modern day police procedural starring a woman as a detective. Well written and acted, and lots of familiar faces.

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