Time Out says
Barbara Kopple's gritty, unabashedly militant 1976 documentary chronicles a 13-month coal miners' strike in an impoverished Eastern Kentucky town, homing in on the heroic struggle of ordinary people to secure basic workplace rights. For four years,Kopple lived with residents of a shanty-town operated by Eastover Mining Co., and bore witness to the hazardous conditions in which death-haunted local men, like generations before them, worked without disability benefits or safety regulations. What she captures on camera is truly appalling: When holding interest Duke Power rejects the miners' attempt to secure a contract through the United Mine Workers of America, a walkout is called, instigating the coal mine operators to send scabs and gun-toting goons across the picket lines in collusion with the powers that be.
Pulsing with visceral energy and a timely message about class warfare, Harlan County, U.S.A. contains interviews with strikers and old-timers, company men and union officials, along with footage of shareholders' meetings, image-burnishing press conferences and a visit to a black-lung clinic where veteran miners gasp for air. As a member of the Winterfilm Collective, Kopple helped make the harrowing Vietnam protest doc Winter Soldier, so her nonobjective answer to the question "Which Side Are You On?"—the title of the film's yearning Appalachian protest song—should come as little surprise. While the dynamically edited narrative builds to a violent crescendo, the most dramatic revelation is the scrappy courage and pugnacious mindset of the miners, wives and mothers who refuse to back down.—Damon Smith