Monday, September 7, 2009


Labor Day isn't just about picnics and beer and hot dogs, and it's not about flag-waving Americana and other patriotic horse manure--it's about people who work for a living. That's it. A big, fat three day weekend to celebrate the workers of the world punching the clock every day, enduring a thousand petty digs, and eventually toppling the fascist corporate power structure.

I'm kidding. Sort of. Sorry to be a buzz kill, but you don't have to be a hardcore Marxist to appreciate our amazing and rarely celebrated labor history in this country. It turns out it's not all about Wall Street and CEOs and trust fund kids running ponzi schemes. Nope, I'm talking about working people struggling for decent wages, respect on the job, and hard-earned benefits. Now that the economy has tanked, and more people are cut (or get their hours reduced) it might serve us well to remember folks who fought for dignity on the job. This story from Harlan County, a hard-scrabble mining community, is a testament to the human spirit.

HARLAN COUNTY, USA is a powerful documentary about the struggle of 180 coalminers on strike against the Duke Power Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973. The film was directed by Barbara Kopple, and she and her crew spent years with the families involved in the strike. Black lung disease, poverty, strikebreakers and armed company goons threaten the lives of these miners and their families, but they stick together. This hard-hitting documentary is an excellent example of investigative reporting, something increasingly rare in this age of easy "infotainment." Filmmaker and crew risked a lot to bring this film to the public.

"The film won the 1976 Academy Award for Documentary Feature," reports Wikipedia. "In 1990, Harlan County, USA was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The events were dramatized in the 2000 TV movie Harlan County War."

The 2004 Criterion Collection release of the DVD includes a special feature The Making of Harlan County, USA. Buy it or rent it here.

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