Harlan County, USA

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Harlan County, USA Movie Poster Image
Riveting 1976 docu about striking miners has some violence.
  • PG
  • 1977
  • 103 minutes

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Parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive messages

By documenting the courage and determination of miners in rural Kentucky on strike for better pay and working conditions, the film sends a message about the power of the average person to stand up to multinational corporations, the government, and other powerful forces.

Positive role models & representations

Striking miners and their wives and mothers stand up for what they believe in, putting their lives and livelihoods on the line while struggling through dire poverty.

Violence

During standoffs between the striking miners and the union-busting scabs, people on both sides brandish guns, rifles, and clubs. One of the scabs is shown firing a gun from his truck. Strikers are shown being arrested and roughly taken away by police. One of the strikers is murdered, and another striker points out where small parts of his brain are still on the road.

Sex

Brief, nonsexual nudity: a brief scene of miners taking showers after work, a mother giving her daughter a bath in a washtub.

Language

Occasional cursing: "S--t," "bitch," "son of a bitch." During a particularly heated exchange between one of the union busters and the strikers, a union buster uses the N-word; this is repeated later as a women supportive of the strike relays the confrontation to her colleagues.

Consumerism
Drinking, drugs & smoking

Many smoke cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Harlan County, USA is a riveting and intense 1976 documentary chronicling a 13-month miners' strike in eastern Kentucky that shows violent altercations between strikers and union-busters, as well as the funeral of a murdered striker where family members are expressing deep shock and sorrow. These scenes might be too much for younger viewers, but for teens and adults interested in the struggles and sometimes fierce battles between organized labor and big business, Barbara Koppel's Oscar-winning documentary is as good as it gets.

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What's the story?

HARLAN COUNTY, USA is an Oscar-winning documentary about a 13-month strike between coal miners and the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company in eastern Kentucky in 1973 and 1974. The film captures the dire poverty of the miners and their families, and their bitter and violent struggles against both Eastover and union-busting scabs and thugs. The filmmakers immersed themselves in the struggle, capturing fierce altercations and heated meetings between the women of the town, the striking miners, and those attempting to break up the strike. Tensions escalate, culminating in the murder of one of the strikers, leading to an agreement between the United Mine Workers and Eastover, but that only leads to more strikes.

Is it any good?

What is most striking about Harlan County, USA is Barbara Koppel's total immersion into the lives and culture of Harlan County, Kentucky, and the coal miners who live there. She and her film crew were there for 5 a.m. showdowns between the striking miners and the strike breakers on county roads, there as miners told stories and sang songs of their lives and living conditions on their front porches, there in the mines to show the incredible hardships miners faced each and every working day. She's even there when shots are fired from the strikebreakers.

This total immersion results in a riveting and intense documentary -- as informative as it is deeply moving. Harlan County, USA has stood the test of time as a courageous film showing courageous coal miners and their families as much motivated by ideals as they are by not having much left to lose.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how a documentary like this was made. What do you think were the challenges the filmmakers had to face before, during, and after filming?

  • What role does music play in this documentary, and how are the songs used in the film to tell the miners' stories?

  • Did anything surprise you in this documentary? Did you learn anything? What's the current state of unions in the United States?

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