Harlan County U.S.A.

Imagine if “The Godfather” and “Norma Rae” had a baby, and that baby grew up to be a badass coal miner with a camera.

That’s Barbara Kopple, and this is her masterpiece.

I rank “Harlan County” #3 in my list of best documentaries about Appalachia (16 of them!).

Trailer for “Harlan County U.S.A.”

Watch “Harlan County U.S.A.”

I watched Harlan County U.S.A. for free on YouTube here:

You can also stream it for free on https://archive.org/details/harlan.county.usa.1977

Or, here are 2 places you can stream it if you subscribe:

You can find the latest streaming options at https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/harlan-county-u-s-a


  • My Rating: 97/100
  • IMDB Rating: 8.2/10
  • Rotten Tomatoes Ratings: 92/100 (Users); 100 /100 (Critics)

Release Date: October 15, 1976 (at the New York Film Festival)

Review of “Harlan County U.S.A.”

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976, 103 min) is a documentary that pulls no punches. Director Barbara Kopple dives headfirst into the 1973 Brookside Mine strike in Kentucky, and the result is a film that’s as raw as it is powerful.

The miners are fighting for their lives, literally. They want better wages, safer conditions, and a little bit of dignity. Duke Power Company? They’re not interested. Cue a 13-month strike that’s as brutal as it is necessary.

Kopple’s camera is there for all of it. The daily picket line battles, the clashes with strikebreakers and police, the resilience of the miners and their families. When 22-year-old striker Lawrence Jones is murdered, it’s a turning point. The strike reaches a fever pitch, and Kopple captures it all.

But this isn’t just a film about a strike. It’s a film about a community, a way of life. Kopple interviews the miners, their wives, the folks who call Harlan County home. They talk about black lung disease, about corporate exploitation, about the importance of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in their fight for justice.

And then there’s the music. Hazel Dickens’ bluegrass and folk tunes weave throughout the film, giving voice to the Appalachian spirit. It’s a soundtrack that’s as haunting as it is beautiful.

Kopple doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. The film explores the internal politics of the UMWA, the election of Arnold Miller as president after the Yablonski murder, the “Miners for Democracy” platform that promised better safety. It’s a complex web, and Kopple navigates it with grace.

Harlan County U.S.A. is a landmark film. It won an Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. It sheds light on a world that most of us never see, a world of coal dust and union battles.

I wish the doc covered the long-term environmental impact of coal mining. I also would have liked to hear more from the coal company executives.

But, hey, I didn’t say the doc is perfect. I still love it!

Thanks for reading!

Rob Kelly, Chief Maniac, Daily Doc