Harlan County, USA, an Oscar-winning documentary directed and produced by prominent filmmaker Barbara Kopple in 1976, is an incredibly moving film that tells the story – using an intersection of the participatory and observational documentary modes – of coal miners in Kentucky who, together with their families, endured a long, violent strike in defense of their rights. The conflict arose out of a disagreement between miners at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County and Duke Power company. The miners of Harlan County were in favor of joining the United Mine Workers of America; however, when Duke Power and the local mining company in Harlan County refused to sign the contract, the miners and their families embarked on a 13 month-long strike, which was only resolved after one miner was shot and killed during a peaceful protest.
Though, at face value, the film sounds simple enough, it possesses several powerful undercurrents worthy of discussion. First and foremost: the film is widely regarded as feminist. Again and again, throughout the film, Kopple represents the the miners’ wives as being integral in both the planning and carrying out of protests and demonstrations. So much so, in fact, that that one of the larger messages of the film is the growing influence of women, both domestically and publically, in the latter half of the 20th Century. Simply put, the miners of Harlan County may never have successfully gotten their contract without the help of their wives.
Secondly, the role of music plays a fascinating, unifying role amongst the miners and their families. Throughout the film, we hear songs – presumably written and performed diegetically by characters in the film – that speak directly to the miners’ struggle. One scene, in particular, shows a woman singing in front of a large rally, and the camera shows us people in the audience singing along. These songs unite the mining community – men, women, and children alike, in their struggle against Duke Power.