Kopple initially intended to make a film about Kenzie, Miners for Democracy and the attempt to unseat Tony Boyle. When miners at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky went on strike in June 1972, Kopple went there to film the strike against Duke Power Company which the UMWA had helped to organize. The strike proved a more interesting subject, so Kopple switched the focus of her film.
Kopple and her crew spent years with the families depicted in the film, documenting the dire straits they found themselves in while striking for safer working conditions, fair labor practices, and decent wages; following them to picket in front of the stock exchange in New York, filming interviews with people affected by black lung disease, and even catching miners being shot at while striking.
The most significant point of disagreement in the Harlan County strike was the company's insistence on including a no-strike clause in the contract. The miners were concerned that accepting such a provision in the agreement would limit their influence over local working conditions. The sticking point was mooted when, a few years after the strike, the UMWA folded the agreement that was eventually won by this group of workers into a global contract.
Rather than using narration to tell the story, Kopple chose to let the words and actions of these people speak for themselves. For example, when the strike breakers and others hired by the company show up early in the film—the strikers call them "gun thugs"—the company people try to keep their guns hidden from the camera. As the strike drags on for nearly a year, both sides eventually openly brandish their weapons. Kopple felt it was important to continue filming (or pretend to, when they were out of film) because their presence and support actually kept the violence down.
Kopple also relays statistics about the companies and the workers to support the strikers, such as the fact that Duke Power Company's profits increased 170 percent in a single year. Meanwhile, the striking miners, many of whom are living in squalid conditions without utilities like running water, received a 4% pay increase despite an estimated 7% cost of living increase for that same year.
Joseph Yablonski was a passionate, populistic union representative who was loved by many of the miners. Yablonski challenged W.A. "Tony" Boyle for the presidency of the UMWA in 1969, but lost in an election widely viewed as corrupt. Later that year, Yablonski and his family were found murdered in their home. Tony Boyle is shown early in the film in good health. Later he is seen frail, sickly and using a wheelchair, being carried up the courthouse steps to face a conviction for giving $20,000 to another union executive council member to hire the killers.
Almost a full year into the strike a striking miner named Lawrence Jones is fatally shot during a scuffle. Jones was well liked, young and had a 16-year-old wife and a baby. In the documentary, his mother can be seen breaking down during his funeral, screaming in agony and being carried away by male attendees. This moment, more than any other, finally forces the strikers and the management to come to the bargaining table.
A central figure in the documentary is Lois Scott, who plays a major role in galvanizing the community in support of the strike. Several times she is seen publicly chastising those she feels have been absent from the picket lines. In one scene, Scott pulls a pistol from her bra. Associate director Anne Lewis compares Scott to Women's Liberation activists in the film's 2004 Criterion Collection special feature The Making of Harlan County, USA.Norman Yarborough - Eastover Mining President
Houston Elmore - UMW organizer
Phil Sparks - UMW staff
John Corcoran - Consolidation Coal President
John O'Leary - former Bureau of Mines director
Donald Rasmussen - Black Lung Clinic, WV
Dr. Hawley Wells Jr.
Tom Williams - Boyle campaigner
Harry Patrick - UMW secretary-treasurer
William E. Simon - U.S. Secretary of Treasury
When the film was re-released film critic Roger Ebert praised the film, writing, "The film retains all of its power, in the story of a miners' strike in Kentucky where the company employed armed goons to escort scabs into the mines, and the most effective picketers were the miners' wives -- articulate, indomitable, courageous. It contains a famous scene where guns are fired at the strikers in the darkness before dawn, and Kopple and her cameraman are knocked down and beaten."
Film critic Dennis Schwartz liked the documentary, yet believed it provided only one point of view. He wrote, "One of the better and more rousing labor strike films that calls attention to class war in America, though it doesn't offer enough analysis or balance on the issues (it sees the struggle solely through the miners' eyes)...The film does a good job chronicling the plight of the miners and telling their personal stories in a moving way, and the meaningful catchy coal mining songs add to the emotional impact of the historical event. Hazel Dickens's folk song lyrics of 'United we stand, divided we fall' and Florence Reece's lyrics of 'Which side are you on?' give one the full-flavor of the miners' mood and the union fervor sweeping the mining community in the black mountains of Appalachia."
Jerry Johnson, one of the striking Eastover miners, attributes the ultimate conclusion of the strike to the presence of Kopple and her film crew: "The cameras probably saved a bunch of shooting. I don't think we'd have won it without the film crew. If the film crew hadn't been sympathetic to our cause, we would've lost. Thank God for them; thank God they're on our side"Wins
Academy Awards: Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (Oscar), Best Documentary, Features, Barbara Kopple; 1977
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Special Award, Barbara Kopple; 1977
Belgian Film Critics Association: Grand Prix, Barbara Kopple; 1979
In 1990 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
In 2014 the UK's Sight and Sound magazine published a "Greatest Documentaries of All Time" list, in which Harlan County, USA was ranked 24th, tied with 2 other movies.