Skip to main content

Barbara Kopple's 'Harlan County USA'

By Alice Elliott

Barbara Kopple's 'Harlan County USA'.Courtesy of Cabin Creek Films

When I first saw documentaries, I made two exciting discoveries: Men and women were making movies about the people I was curious about, but with whom I thought I had no way of interacting; and there was an audience--like me--who wanted to watch these movies. Documentaries were compelling, moving, unforgettable stories that brought us, the audience, inside real lives.

These discoveries were so overwhelming to me that I was eventually able to change careers and become a documentary filmmaker myself. I remembered feeling haunted by the images and voices in these films speaking to me after the credits rolled--films like Ira Wohl's Best Boy, Henry Hampton's Eyes on the Prize and Barbara Kopple's Harlan County USA.

Harlan County USA had perhaps the most profound impact on me. It was about people I had heard about, but didn't know. My grandfather was a mine doctor in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. I spent my summers in my grandparents' care. My grandmother and mother told me stories of how my grandfather would be called out in the middle of the night when there was a coal mine accident. He helped women give birth, administered vaccinations, set bones and signed death certificates. On foggy nights, he would stop in the road, get out and walk with a lantern in front of his car to find the way. My mother took me to Red Hill, the nearby company town, and showed me the poor housing, outdoor toilets and company store, but I had no direct contact with the miners and their families. 

Barbara Kopple's 'Harlan County USA'.Courtesy of Cabin Creek Films

When I saw Harlan County USA, I was riveted. I was seeing these people I had heard my family speak about. I was seeing the people my grandfather ministered to and respected. The dignity, courage and simple justice of their cause was so eloquently portrayed, I finally found a connection with them. The story I had wanted to see had suddenly been put in front of me. Experiencing the injustice of the miners' lives through Harlan County USA was a significant turning point for me. 

I watched Harlan County USA not only for the story, but also for the technique. When I began to make documentaries, I made a scene chart to understand the structure and the storytelling. I timed every cut and wrote descriptions of each scene. The more I delved into the film, the more I was touched by it. The bravery and cunning of the filmmakers became more and more clear to me as I re-watched the film. It was beyond inspiring; it was humbling. 

I know I will never have Barbara Kopple's courage--I don't think I would be able to stand on the frontlines and be shot at--but I will always hold her as an inspiration to be as brave as I can, in my own way.


Alice Elliott is currently working on The Miracle on 42nd Street, about how performing artists transformed New York City. She has two films in distribution through New Day Films: the Academy Award-nominated The Collector of Bedford Street, and Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy. She teaches full time at New York University.