Back to Film Festival

Film Festival - Harlan County USA

Wednesday - March 28, 2007
MAC Playhouse - 3:30 pm - 6:15 pm

Harlan County USA

Hosted by: Dr. Robert Singer, Professor of English
College Now English Course Coordinator

About the Movie: Harlan County USA
Director, Barbara Koppel 1976 - Rating PG
Do workers have the right to form a union? Are medical coverage, a pension, and issues of fair pay worth fighting over, even if leading to a violent labor strike? Harlan County, USA, although a true American story, will remind you that there is poverty in America, not every place is modernized, and that there are some things worth fighting over, especially if involving basic human rights. This film is a lesson in social activism.

About the Host/Presenter: Dr. Robert Singer
Dr. Robert Singer is a Professor of English at Kingsborough, CUNY and adjunct Professor of Film Studies and Liberal Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He received a Ph.D. from New York University in Comparative Literature. He co-edited Zola and Film: Essays in the Art of Adaptation (2005), The Brooklyn Film (2003), and co-authored the text, The History of Brooklyn's Three Major Performing Arts Institutions (2003). Among his professional honors and awards have been nine PSC-CUNY Study Grants and an NEH Study Grant for College Teachers. He has also written and directed several independent short films. Professor Singer has worked with College Now for over 10 years as Coordinator of the English Program.

ACT Style Prep

Extra Credit Assignments
From the beginning signs of social and economic conflict, to a degree of resolution achieved via violence and economic struggle, in the film, Harlan County, USA, the viewer witnesses the development of a real labor strike set primarily in rural America during the 1970s. Harlan County, USA documents and contrasts the effects that this real-life crisis had on working class people, a major American industry, and even Wall Street. In fact, the United States has had a long and violent history of labor conflicts, whether situated in the coal mine, textile and automobile industry, or even locally in such areas as the teachers and other city workers unions. Potential issues that lead to a labor strike and other forms of conflict may involve money, pensions, worker safety and job-site discrimination. Many problems affect the relationship among industry, government, and its workers, and the strike is one product of these conflicts.

A film, whether documentary like Harlan County, USA or fictionalized, like Norma Rae or North Country, may represent the interests of a particular union, group of workers, individual, or even the point of view of an industry such as coal or automobile. Films that document a labor crisis generally lead the audience into taking a position. Unlike a television news broadcast, which the facts are allegedly reported without bias, the documentary film, such as Harlan County, USA, is not obliged to represent both sides evenly, or at all. This film clearly sides with the worker's struggle for fair pay and safety issues. Those sequences in this film featuring management and its point of view are not as sympathetic as sequences featuring the workers and their families.

You have been asked to write a letter to the school newspaper in which you will express your view concerning the issue of fairly representing both sides of the "story" when producing a film like Harlan County, USA. Do you think it is appropriate to favor one side of the issue, in this case, workers involved in a complex labor strike, over another, or does this matter at all? This is not a television network's broadcast news story: Harlan County, USA is a film with a paying audience who choose to see the film. How does the point of view of the filmmaker affect your judgment of the labor issues, the workers, management, and the entire experience of watching the film? For example, would this have been a better film if the point of view of the company owners and mine operators had been more fairly/evenly presented? Is this less a documentary and more a type of propaganda? In your letter, discuss your view of this topic and these questions about Harlan County, USA. Freely quote from any source of information and from the film.

Mini-Research Project

(NOTE: This is NOT a research paper - it is a research-oriented experience in which students gather information. They can prepare outlines, note-cards, a bibliography, cite references, or practice any combination of these skills associated with preparing a research paper).

Utilizing the library and its resources, and/or material from the Internet, prepare an investigative project that focuses on any one of these topics associated with the film, Harlan County, USA:

a) The Matewan, West Virginia Strike (1920s)
b) John L. Lewis
c) The Ludlow, Colorado Strike/John D. Rockefeller
d) The Teachers Union Strike (NYC, 1960s)

Standard College Essay

Many issues arise from the analysis and discussion of the film, Harlan County, USA. Some of the more important issues involve the value of skilled and unskilled labor in an ever changing economy, from the 1970s to 2006+, the complex and often troubled relationship between management and labor, the role of the media, in this case, the medium of film, in depicting a historical and political process with/without taking "sides." and how in this film, women, although not literally working in the mine but an important part of the mining experience, have an impact upon this process of struggle and resolution. There are other related personal and social issues arising from the analysis of this film, and these are only some suggested and significant themes to consider.

In a full-length essay (approximately 400-500 words), later to be revised for content and correctness, discuss any of the issues raised in the film Harlan County, USA that you consider to be of special interest either for yourself or for society. Feel free to refer to the film or any source of information in your essay. Explain why and how these issues are significant not only in the film but also in relationship to your own life or the lives of other people.

Back to Film Festival