Analysis of the documentary Harlan County, USA Essay

Published: 2019-11-20 14:42:53
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Category: Film

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The films central focus is the real-life documentation of a strike stages by miners in the Brookside Mine against Duke Power Company, a large energy company in the United States, for its alleged unfair labor practices, dangerous working conditions, and low wages. It also highlights the lack of response of the United Mine Workers of America (UWMA) towards the plight of the workers.

Basically, film director and producer Barbara Kopple, together with her crew, spent years with the miners and their families portrayed and documented their poor working and living conditions. She followed them as they rallied in front of the New York stock exchange and also interviewed miners affected by black lung disease or coalminers pneumoconiosis. The film also documented that main source of discord between the company and the miners was the no-strike clause in the contract, which was eventually removed.

Moreover, the film also showed how the company increased its profits by more than 100 per cent while the miners only received a 4 per cent pay increase  despite the 7 per cent increaese in the cost of living in the same year. Major elements also shown in the documentary include the prevalence of country music, which has more or less been one of the themes of the entire strike. However, the most significant events shown in the documentary are the murders of two miners, Joseph Yablonski and his family, and Lawrence Jones. Their deaths eventually changed the tide for the miners as the management finally a agreed to arrange a bagain with them, ending the strike.


1.What factors could have caused the company to exploit the miners the way they did?

2.What were the possible social and economic factors that compelled the miners to continue working for the company before finally staging a strike?

3.In what ways is the film an important cultural masterpiece and an eye-opener to society?


1.  In general, there are a number of factors that come into play with regard to the exploitation of miners in the film.  First is the human factor since Duke Power Company is run by humans. Therefore, they are prone to temptations, sin, and emotions, among many others. In addition, the socio-economic status of the miners played an important role in pushing their employers to exploit them. For example, as shown in the documentary, the almost of all of the miners are impoverished.

So when they were able to find employment as coalminers, they possibly saw it as a golden opportunity for them to make a living and improve their conditions which is why they agreed to work for the company without considering the unfair labor practices at the time. Seeing that the miners are seemingly eager to find work, the company willingly exploited them by providing them with dangerous working conditions and low wages. In a way, it would even appear that the miners were indebted to the company for providing them with jobs.

2. Poverty is clearly one of the most significant economic factors that compelled the miners to work for the the company. As shown in the film, the miners experienced some of the worst living conditions. Almost of all do not have sufficient water and food, among other basic necessities. Seeing that they were in dire need of means to improve their lives, they willingly allowed themselves to be exploited so long as they are able to make a living (Biskind n.p.).

However, as depicted in the documentary, the miners were unaware of the poor working conditions that awaited them, which included the no strike clause in their contracts, which was eventually removed. However, in a way, the miners felt that the clause in the contract initially meant that their place in the company is secure and there will never be any need for them to stage a strike. But eventually, they realized that the strike prevented them from influencing the labor practices of the company and this is why they pushed for its removal.

3. The documentary as a whole serves as an important cultural piece and an eye-opener mainly because of the painful reality that it depicted. Aside from the impoverished miners, the documentary also captured on film true to life events such as imprisoned strikers, rioters, violence, courtrooms, and even murder. It can also be said that the documentary had a more human side to it, as director Kopple took various risks by attending the actual strikes and pickets and also interviewing the members of the miners and their families.

Aside from showing the plight of the miners, it also depicted how people with little to no education are abused and exploited by those who rank higher in society. Most of all, the strength of the film lies heavily on its moral authority (Biskind n.p.) as it does not simply portray heroes and villains, but simply the truth and the lessons to be learned from it.


Over-all, I believe that the document is a highly essential piece that depicts the realities of one of the poorest working classes in the country- the coal miners. I am sure that most people, myself included, are not aware of the dangers that accompany the job such as black lung disease, which is fatal. In general, I believe that the the film was successful in depicting how these coalminers risk their lives to ensure that the homes and businesses of thousands of Americans are supplied with electicity and power and therefore, they more than deserve, at the very least, safe working conditions, fair labor practices, and higher wages.

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