The recent surge in coal-mining disasters has followed the creeping relaxation of safety standards, making this round of cave-ins part of a centuries-old tug-of-war between workers, management, and government. It's a struggle dramatically laid out in Barbara Kopple's landmark 1976 documentary Harlan County U.S.A., which uses a yearlong miners' strike as the frame for a study of union woes. At the time the movie was made, miners were staring at a labor contract that promised minimal health and retirement benefits, while the industry nationwide averaged a casualty a day. One retired miner recalls being told back in the '30s that the mule he was riding meant more to the company than he did. "We can always afford to hire another man," he was told, "but we've got to buy that mule."
Kopple originally intended Harlan County U.S.A. to be a verité documentary about the contentious election of a new union president—an election that ended with one candidate murdered, the incumbent arrested, and leadership given over, for the first time, to an actual miner. But then, for the sake of historical background, Kopple detoured into Kentucky, to the site of one of the bloodiest union-busting riots in American history, and she found history repeating itself. While her cameras rolled, she caught hired "gun thugs" threatening picketers (and her film crew), and she caught the growing dissension among the striking miners, whose cause was largely saved by angry wives, lightly radicalized by the '60s and fed up with having to bathe their children in cold iron buckets.
Long regarded as one of the documentary form's finest achievements, Harlan County U.S.A. hasn't lost any of its power to grip and enlighten. As John Sayles phrases it in an interview on the DVD, Kopple put in "the porch time," developing sympathy for the miners and their families, and backing their frustration with statistics about the vast gulf between coal profits and coal wages from year to year. The film barely brushes the surface of the conflicted feelings working-class Americans have about unions and strikes—a subject Kopple confronted more directly in 1991's equally powerful American Dream—but it gets the cruel irony of a man well past retirement age slapping on a helmet and heading back to a job he hates, for far less compensation than he'd hoped.
Key features: A Kopple commentary track and a series of concise, informative featurettes.