Customer Review

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful Powerful Powerful, June 29, 2006
This review is from: Harlan County, U.S.A. (The Criterion Collection) (DVD)
I was introduced to this film while pursuing my undergrad degree. Our professor was a wild-haired sociology PhD that taught a class called, "The Sociology of Cultural Movements and Popular Struggle". He was fond of telling students at the beginning of the semester that he had been kicked out of more institutions than they had attended. The professor didn't say much before showing the film, but I do recall, perhaps because of its erie delivery, that the professor used the word, "powerful", repeatedly, and held up a single finger in the air. I remember his eyes scanning across our faces with out a single blink in his eyes. He knew what he was about to introduce us to. He knew that this film would change our lives. He shut off the lights and took a seat in the back of the classroom. No one moved over the two days he showed this film. We laughed and smiled when we should have, we bit our lips, we clenched our fists, we felt the small victories and joy, and thankfully, the lights were out, because I am fairly sure that more than a handful of people wiped away some tears, too. I recall that this film even managed to silence the usual sarcastic rhetoric of even the biggest class clowns. I have been haunted by this film since that initial viewing, it is a landmark of journalistic achievment.

Previous to the film's release on DVD, I would sometimes borrower it from the public library on VHS. Despite going completely retro adjusting the tracking, and tolerating the lousy, faded picture, I justified the discomfort because this film is much, much more than mere entertainment. This film stands up to repeated viewings and study. It requires time. These people give you everything they have, and all they ask for in return is some of your time.

The cast of this film are coal miners and their families. These are people barely getting by, employed in a thankless and dangerous profession, living in poverty, and yet full of passion and unbroken hope. Most did not have running water. Your printer is probably worth more than all of the worldly possessions these people owned. They had cars that barely ran, but the vehicle got them to work. They had each other, and that's about it. However, when they realized, collectively, and decided, collectively, that the time had come to unionize and attempt to improve their lives, they met with some resistance to say the least. They risked not only the very little that they had, they risked their lives in some cases to make a better life for their children and grandchildren. This is a documentary of heroes, real, day to day heroes that we might never know about under ordinary media coverage.

In this modern day, when the documentary has come into full vogue with a major force, this film still remains the finest documentary I have ever seen. More than anything else, this is, to me, a deeply American film, but I must tell you, I mean that in the same sense that Howard Zinn might say it. This is popular struggle. This is how it is done. This is not the glorious, bloody revolution, but is instead the day after day struggle for positive change with dedication, sweat, tears, two steps forward and three steps back, passionate victories, a silence, and a child sleeping sounder in the still of the night. Thankfully, Barbara Kopple dedicated her time, energy, and creativity to this masterpiece of documentary journalism and captured an important piece of populist history for humankind.

If you are new to this film, I really encourage you to watch it, you have nothing to lose and so much to gain. Watch it with your family and your children. Discuss it, think about it. These are not actors. These are people struggling for everything that they have in this world just short of their souls. If you have seen it, watch it again, for the first time, and remember what real patriotism feels, looks, and sounds like.
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