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Harlan County U.S.A.: The Criterion Collection

Barbara Kopple's first movie as a director was this astoundingly evocative, Academy Award-winning 1976 documentary that still holds as the most powerful depiction of labor struggles in the United States. Following a murder scandal in the late 1960s, the United Mine Workers of America underwent a "democratic" reform during which workers from the mines wrestled union leadership away from its corrupt bosses and promised the country's unrepresented miners that they would soon be brought into the fold. The beleaguered coal miners of Harlan County, Kent., began their fight to join the union in 1973 to force better working conditions and compensation from Duke Power, and Kopple lived with the miners throughout their struggle. For over a year, the local miners picketed as Duke brought in scabs to replace them and leveraged its powerful influence with the local government to keep the picketers at bay. As the union-hopefuls persisted in disrupting Duke's coal operations, Duke reacted with implicit threats of violence, and the strikers rallied to match them with equal force, resulting in a tragic murder that sobered the escalating hysteria and finally brought Duke to the table to sign a contract accepting unionized workers. Kopple's intimate relationship with the miners of Harlan County — and especially the inspirational wives, mothers, and daughters who keep the strike going when enthusiasm wanes and end up leading the fight against Duke — allowed her to vividly capture the colorful, indelible characters of the poor, blue-collar community, the textures of their environment (including the haunting folk music with which they document their lives), and the emotions behind their crusade. Kopple is naturally sympathetic to the strikers' desire for healthier working and living conditions, but what makes Harlan County U.S.A. particularly effective as a social document is that her personal attachment to her subjects means that neither is she sanguine about unionization as a panacea for the workers — shortly after joining the UMWA, many miners feel that the union has sold out their interests, and they find themselves once again flailing against a detached, powerful body controlling their fates. It's a powerful film that refuses to reduce the complexities, ironies, and paradoxes of the labor movement into politically simple ideals, and it brings the hidden, perilous world of coal mining to full life with unforgettable people and music. This Criterion Collection edition of Harlan County U.S.A. is presented in a new restored high-definition anamorphic digital transfer (1.78:1) with the original monaural audio. Kopple is joined on a commentary track by editor Nancy Baker, and their comments are nearly as fascinating as the movie, as they discuss how their crew's mere presence on the picket lines affected the nature of the conflict between the strikers and the mines. Also included is the half-hour featurette "The Making of Harlan County, U.S.A.", which features new interviews with crew members and the movie's subjects. A selection of outtakes from the film includes additional footage of singer Nimrod Workman, plus a terrific interview during which one of the miner's wives explains how "red-baiting" opposition to the union has piqued her interest in communism. There's also an interview with singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens, and another with Matewan director John Sayles about Harlan County's influence on his work. Also included is a panel discussion from the 2005 Sundance Festival featuring Kopple and Roger Ebert (15 min.). The disc is accompanied by a booklet with essays by film scholar Paul Arthur and music journalist Jon Weisberger. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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