Friday, November 03, 2006

I was not born a coal miner's daughter.

1. I joined Netflix this week just so I could get a certain documentary, Harlan County, USA.

2. I am not good at articulating why I like a book or movie. My standard line is, "It's so good. You have to watch it."

So, what is going to happen here today is I will stumble and bumble my way through explaining what was great about this documentary and why you should see it even if you have to join Netflix to do it.

Harlan County, USA documents the coal workers' strike at Brookside Mines in eastern Kentucky in 1973-74. The workers had voted to join the United Mine Workers of America union and the company refused to sign the contract. The miners were on strike for over a year and the film attempts to give some history of safety conditions in coal mines in the United States, the conflict between the companies that own the mines and the workers, and the harsh conditions the miners both worked and lived in as well as document the long strike.

Although some of the timeline of the movie is not clear--a UMWA election actually took place before the strike began--the movie powerfully depicts its subjects as they fight increased pay, medical insurance and a retirement program. At the time, most of the workers and their families live in wood shacks with no running water or other indoor plumbing. With only five sick days per year, a man would go to work ill rather than miss out on a day's pay. With no retirement, men worked years past when they should retire often with debillitating lung disease. Of course these were the men lucky enough to survive to old age.

One of many powerful scenes in the movie comes when some of the strikers go to New York City to picket at the annual stockholder's meeting. A striker and a New York policeman talk about the reason for the strike and compare their pay and benefits. As the two talk, the policeman quickly comes to the conclusion that the strikers are getting a bad deal. The striker points to something powered by electricity and says that one man died that day for people to have that power. One man dead per day in the coal mines.

The potential horror of dying in the coal mines is shown when the filmmakers' explain the explosion at the Mannington Mines. After the explosion, four men survived and 78 were trapped in the mine. It isn't completely clear, but it seems that rescue efforts halted after a second explosion which resulted in the mine being sealed off. If any of the men were alive at that time, their fate was decided when the decision to seal the mine was made to prevent further explosions.

Another terrible death happens during the filming. The struggle to maintain the picket line is depicted throughout the film. Scab workers, often recent parolees from prison, were escorted past the picket line by "gun thugs" especially one Basil Collins. Basil made his reputation breaking strikes for the company. This mean, ugly old man walked around with his revolver in his pocket and his hand on it at all times. One night, a scab worker shoots a young miner named Lawrence Jones. He left behind a mother and a young wife and five-month old baby. The death of Lawrence both galvanizes the workers and forces the company to sign the union contract. Neither Basil Collins nor the worker who shot Lawrence Jones faced any prosecution for their crimes.

Shortly after, with the new contract signed, the workers head back to the mines. Three months later, they walked out again as part of a larger movement of the UMWA. Every year after that for two or three years, all the coal miners in America who were part of the UMWA went out on strike.

There is so much more in this film:
  • Women played a vital role in this strike for the first time joining the men on the picket line. They were arrested and harassed along with the men. In fact, a lot of these women had had enough and they were actually more assertive than the men. After Lawrence Jones is killed, one man expresses his disgust that while the women were blocking the road with their cars and standing in front of them with their "switches," the men were hiding behind the cars. As the strike drags on and the climate becomes more and more dangerous, one woman is shown pulling a gun out of her bra! She plainly states that it would be crazy not to carry a gun.
  • In addition to the unique role of the women in the Harlan County strike, the presence of the documentary crew is notable. After gaining the trust of the strikers and their families, the crew had access to the very intense struggle in the workers' meetings and on the picket line. At one point, the gun thugs come after the camera operator and rough up a few members of the crew. This is the same night that guns are fired at the strikers. It seems clear--and the filmmakers believe that their presence helped prevent further violence from taking place.
  • They used music from Appalachian musicians including many who were coal workers themselves. The songs are infused with the realities of life there with many references to bloody strikes, black lung disease and ruthless company practices.

There even more to see in this film and the DVD contains several supplemental features including a piece on the making of the film. I higly recommend watching it because it helps fill out some of the timeline of events and gives even more background. Other features include an intervew with John Sayles who watched Harlan County, USA as he prepared to make his own film about mining, Matewan and more footage that was not included in the original film.

I had heard about this film when it was released on DVD and right away it was something I wanted to see. I have a strong sense of social justice and knew that the story of the miners versus the power company would be compelling. And it was. The Kentucky coal mining families simply wanted better than they had--which was next to nothing. Coal mining is difficult and dangerous work. Even with the safety improvements over the years, we know from the Sago mine explosion last January and the Darby Mine blast in Holmes Mill, Kentucky this past May just how dangerous it can be. Yet their reward for the sacrifices they made was so little. Many of the people in the film were unable to complete their basic education because of having to go to work for the coal companies to support their families. The families watched their brothers, fathers, uncles and grandfathers die from black lung disease and other ailments. It is sad to think just how difficult their lives were. The UMWA brought hope to them. Hope for medical care, hope for retirement, hope for a better life for their children. It definitely resonated deep within me and I am grateful that I have not known such hardships in my life.

Harlan County, USA won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1974. It is now listed in the National Film Registry.

I hope you get a chance to watch this very powerful film. If you do, let me know what you think, okay?

3 down, 27 to go


V-Grrrl said...

I think I'd like to see this.

I'm forever disgusted how some industries and businesses exploit their workers, especially in areas where jobs are hard to come by and people are not well educated. Don't even get me started on the unfairness of the backlash against hispanics and Mexicans.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing all about Caesar Chavez and workers rights and the call to boycott California's agriculture. The Catholic Church in NY was very involved in that cause at the time....

Mary-LUE said...

V-Grrrl: I try to be careful that I am not swept away by my social justice passion that I cannot see the bigger picture. For example, even in the documentary, you see that there is some corruption in the union, etc. I'm just a "Grapes of Wrath" kind of gal, though, and hate to see those who have lord it over and abuse those don't!

Anonymous said...

Hi Mary-Lue,

Thanks for reaching out to say hello. Yes, it was a GORGEOUS couple days here is So Cal (or So-So Cal, as it seems you call it...), and going to the beach again was like visiting an old friend.

I hate the winter. :(

I'm very interested in checking out this film you mention--I'll try to add it to my wish list.

Speaking of old films, I have now watched GREY GARDENS three times -- and plan to do so again at least once more before returning it. I'm mesmerized. Have you seen it?

Good luck with NaBloPoMo!


Anonymous said...

"Harlan County USA" bends the truth or doesn't show it all. The so-called unionmen (strikers) were a bunch of gangsters anyways.