Harlan County, U.S.A.

Director: Barbara Kopple

Institute History

  • 2005 Sundance Film Festival


When Barbara Kopple set out to make her first documentary, Harlan County, U.S.A., in 1973, she had no idea what an adventure it would be. Kopple and her crew spent 18 months in Brookside, Kentucky, where coal miners were striking against the Eastover Mining Company, which refused to ratify a contract with the union, the UMW. The filmmakers lived in miners' homes, walked the picket line, and were shot at when negotiations deadlocked and violence erupted.

The resulting film is a vibrant portrait of the harsh working conditions and unflagging spirit of a community that refuses to back down even in the face of financial hardship, as well as a history of miners' ongoing fight for recognition. Its mounting tension and outspoken cast of real-life characters give Harlan County a dramatic arc any fiction film would envy. But what we remember most are the faces: feisty Lois Scott organizing the miners' wives, the backbone of the strike; belligerent mine foreman Basil Collins barreling his pickup through the picket line and shooting wildly into the crowd; indomitable Florence Reese singing "Which Side Are You On?," a plaintive counterpoint to Hazel Dickens's authentic Appalachian soundtrack.

Harlan County won the Academy Award for best documentary of 1976 and was named to the National Film Registry by Congress as an American Film Classic in 1991. The Women's Preservation Fund and the Academy Film Archive recently restored the film and remastered the soundtrack, and the new print is premiering at this year's Festival.

— Barbara Bannon

Screening Details


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