Review: ‘Harlan County U.S.A.’

While nowadays documentaries seem like just another genre at the multiplex, screening next door to actioners, slasher pics and romantic comedies, it wasn't so long ago that the popularity of a film like the Oscar-winning "Harlan County U.S.A." was considered an anomaly.

While nowadays documentaries seem like just another genre at the multiplex, screening next door to actioners, slasher pics and romantic comedies, it wasn’t so long ago that the popularity of a film like the Oscar-winning “Harlan County U.S.A.” was considered an anomaly. Barbara Kopple’s gritty look at striking Kentucky coal miners and their violent fight with bottom line-minded corporations, corrupt public officials and gun-wielding thugs seems as relevant today as it did upon its release in 1976. The Criterion Collection seems to take extra-special care with non-fiction films, and “Harlan” gets the same respectful treatment, arriving in a slick, classy package.

With “Harlan,” Kopple eschewed the fly-on-the-wall aesthetics and embedded herself and her tiny crew in the homes and lives of the striking workers, long before Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock became part of the stories they chronicled. In her commentary with supervising editor Nancy Baker, Kopple admits that “it wasn’t about objectivity,” and that, while the coal company’s side is represented in the pic, the filmmakers were firmly aligned with the workers and their families. The commentary also addresses pic’s strong feminist undertones, as the workers’ wives literally take up arms in the crusade against the coal company and its thuggish minions.

The disc’s limited but enlightening extras, including outtakes and a 20-minute “making-of” doc, highlight the film’s significance as a social and historical document. Underlining the importance of regional music in the “Harlan,” the DVD also includes a brief interview with bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens, who is among the half dozen or so artists whose music gives “Harlan” a strong sense of urgency, as well as cementing the link between art and culture.

Helmer John Sayles, in a short video interview, points to “Harlan” as a major inspiration for his work, especially his look at striking miners “Matewan.” A Q&A from last year’s Sundance fest gains added frisson when a striking worker from a nearby Utah coal mine is invited onstage to reveal that not much has changed since the ’70s. Likewise, just a few days before the “Harlan” DVD hit shelves, five miners died in an explosion in an Eastern Kentucky mine, proving that the film is indeed an indispensable document of ongoing struggle by workers.

Harlan County U.S.A.

May 23; Single disc: $39.95

Production

A Criterion Collection release of the 1976 Barbara Kopple film.
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