This film documents the coal miners' strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in June, 1973. Eastovers refusal to sign a contract (when the miners joined with the United Mine Workers of America) led to the strike, which lasted more than a year and included violent battles between gun-toting company thugs/scabs and the picketing miners and their supportive women-folk. Director Barbara Kopple puts the strike into perspective by giving us some background on the historical plight of the miners and some history of the UMWA.
Although Kopple’s authorial presence is different from, say, Michael Moore’s first-person antics in Roger and Me (1989), it constitutes an initial step toward an ethics of self-reflexivity, the belief that because no filmmaker can exert complete authoritative knowledge over a given reality, it is more truthful to disclose tensions between straightforward recording and personal sympathies. […] A signal aspiration of the women’s movement was to document the lives of ordinary women, produce “counterhistories” to combat the habitual and continuing exclusion of women’s contributions from narratives of social change. Kopple clearly demonstrates how the political resonates through the deeply personal, gendered tasks of child rearing and other domestic chores in the daily lives of miners’ wives. However, these women are also shown taking vital leadership roles: organizing picket lines, forming support committees, and directly confronting the violence of scabs and company thugs. Their double duty, as it were, is indicative of a dilemma still afflicting women’s labor. […] Oddly, in its time Harlan County USA was repudiated by elements of the cultural left, including some feminists; it centered a debate involving the political efficacy of documentary realism and the probity of commercial distribution. If a supposedly progressive film reached a popular audience, was that evidence of a compromised political perspective? […] Harlan County USA can be considered a signpost for recent nonfiction successes like Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and The Corporation. As Florence Reece put it, “They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.” For Barbara Kopple, the absence of neutrality proved to be not just a virtue but a cultural prophecy.
— Paul Arthur (Criterion)