January 26, 1977 [Harlan County U.S.A.]

Harlan County U.S.A., Barbara Kopple’s documentary of a 1973 miners’ strike in Kentucky, takes us deep into the woods and down into the mines, where good country people do not spread checked tablecloths for covered-dish suppers while breezes sway the willows and cicadas sing, with a county fair in the distance sending up the thin tootle of a calliope—no, that is another country.

Here in Harlan County it’s a long hard push, the United Mine Workers of America trying hard (and they have their own troubles) while the miners themselves stand in the dark, company thugs firing off a round or two to clear the way for scabs.

—And often it’s the women who stand tallest, the miners’ wives keeping things organized, the kind of plain-faced ladies that Flannery O’Connor warned us about, Jesus in their hearts and the Devil in their mouths, packing a little iron themselves, tit for tat. While the film’s discussion of troubles in the union is illuminating, a record that needs setting straight, it’s those women who remain with me, a little self-conscious, playing for the camera a little—but I won’t argue: it’s their show, and I’m just a city boy safe in my air conditioning, watching them sweat—while their husbands, coughing as they always have, wait on a miracle.


  1. Some documentaries only happen because the filmmaker happened to be in the right place at the right time. Such documentaries are miracles.

    This is one of them.

  2. Yeah, in some ways Koppel was the miracle, in others, the miners themselves. Still a powerful piece of work.

  3. There's a follow-up to this, American Dream, which I've seen bits of and think I might like even more than this one. As always, nice economical and evocative write-up on this great doc.


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