A Revered Champion For Justice
You could call her an American treasure and you’d be right. Barbara Kopple was the first woman to win two Oscars in the Best Feature Documentary category (for Harlan County and American Dream) and Harlan County U.S.A. was placed on the National Film Registry by the Librarian of Congress in 1990 and designated an American Film Classic. Her list of awards is extensive—ranging from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival Irene Diamond Award to the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize—and the number of films she has crafted over four decades averages one each year.
Kopple didn’t start out wanting to be a documentarian. She attended Northeastern University where she studied clinical psychology, but instead of submitting a term paper for one of her psych courses she made a film instead. That’s all it took for her to be hooked on filmmaking.
In 1972 she began filming the Miners for Democracy movement led by Arnold Miller. When the union moved to Harlan County to organize the miners, Kopple moved too and spent 13 months filming the struggle. Harlan Country took four years to make and cost about $200,000.
Harlan County was the first of dozens more feature-length, non-fiction films for Kopple; she’s also directed both non-fiction and fiction films and series for television. Her non-fiction films follow her belief that documentarians shouldn’t have an agenda going into a project. Her approach to filmmaking is to let the story emerge. As she told Bright Lights Film Journal in 2006, “The fascination and the excitement of documentary is that you don’t know, so why guess? Just put your sneakers on and go. Go on the journey.”
Over the years she’s taken viewers on many journeys: to the deep South to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the killings of three civil rights workers in 1964 (Civil Rights: The Struggle Continues); to the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota during the six-month strike in 1985-1986 (American Dream); to Robben Island in South Africa and the reunion of 1,500 political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela (Prisoners of Hope); to the road with the Dixie Chicks from the top of their popularity as country music darlings through their now infamous anti-Bush comment made by lead singer Natalie Maines in 2003 (Shut Up and Sing).
Kopple’s films celebrate the people she cares about, whether it’s the American worker or patients challenging the drug regulatory system in Fight to Live. She also examines the lives of the famous and infamous, the three Hemingway sisters in Running From Crazy; the journalist and philanthropist, Ellen Ratner in A Force of Nature; Mike Tyson, the controversial boxer in Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson; and Woody Allen as he tours with his New Orleans Jazz Band in Wild Man Blues.
Kopple has a gift for getting people to open up. She has called herself an “intimate filmmaker.” She told filmmaker Roland Legiardi-Laura in an interview for Bomb Magazine in 1992, “I like to be able to get underneath what people think.” To do that, she has to gain people’s trust and immerse herself in their community. “What I would call a really good documentary is one in which you never feel the presence of the camera or the filmmaker,” she told Legiardi-Laura. “It’s like peeking under a blanket where you’re not supposed to look and seeing real life and real people unfold.”
Her ability to blend in and keep her crew small (often just one other person) has allowed her to be present at many struggles. It’s also made her one of America’s enduring champions for justice.
Harlan County U.S.A.
DIRECTOR: Barbara Kopple
PRODUCER: Barbara Kopple
EDITORS: Nancy Baker, Mirra Bank, Lora Hays, Mary Lampson
CINEMATOGRAPHERS: Kevin Keating, Hart Perry
This Oscar-winning documentary follows the 1973 Brookside Mine strike of 180 coal miners and their wives against the Duke Power Company, owner of the Kentucky mine. Kopple and her crew documented the dire straits the workers found themselves in while protesting for safer working conditions, fair labor practices and decent wages. Rather than using narration to tell the story, Kopple let the words and actions of the strikers speak for themselves.
Kopple spent 13 months in Harlan County filming the struggle. She believed it was important for her to be there, even if there was no film in the camera, because having a camera recording events kept the violence down. It also let the strikers know there were other people that cared about them and the outcome of the strike.
Despite the presence of the camera, violence was not avoided. Almost a year into the strike one of the young and well-liked miners, Lawrence Jones was fatally shot. He left behind a 16-year-old wife and baby. The miner’s death, said Kopple in a 1977 interview with Jump Cut was the “only reason” that the union and the government and the coal operators got together.
Violence was not limited to the miners. In an intimating scene where miners were being beaten, a group of scabs attacked Kopple and broke the camera. Kopple told Jump Cut, “I wasn’t scared when it was happening because I was so angry.” It’s that passion and sense of right and wrong that makes Kopple such a powerful documentarian.