Right now, it’s easy to feel disconnected. But if you have the energy and time, there are still ways to stay in touch with your political roots. These three documentaries (plus a bonus recommendation) range from an examination of the hillbilly identity, to one of the most significant labor films about a strike of all time, to a visual and historical guide to anti-colonialist theory. We can’t go to our local cinemas, but it’s still possible to feel engaged and challenged from your own living room.
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
Criterion Channel; or Youtube for $2.99
A true classic of the genre, Harlan County, USA should be required viewing for every progressive and union-lover. This documentary (director Barbara Kopple’s first feature) chronicles the Brookside coal mine’s 1973 strike, using interviews and footage from union meetings, rallies, protests, and long, dark nights on the picket line.
Kopple was even the boom mic operator, and there is a visceral sense of being in the middle of the action throughout the film. The conflict begins when the workers at the Kentucky mine vote to join the United Mine Workers of America. Management refused to sign a new contract with the workers, which would have improved safety standards, increased health benefits and, importantly, would have validated their union membership. After negotiations fall apart, 180 miners walk out on strike.
Throughout the documentary, in every interaction between the strikers and law enforcement, the strikers are treated as enemies of the peace. When the mine owners try to hire scabs to weaken the strike, state troopers arrive at the scene — but not to protect and serve, at least not equally. They are there to protect the scabs. An older man watching the troopers take up their stations comments, “They’re for the company only.” It’s not his first rodeo, his tone of voice says. The police will always take the side of the corporate oligarchs to maintain the status quo in a business-first country.
Scenes in Harlan County show the importance of song in struggle and strikes. Florence Reece, who wrote “Which Side Are You On?” in 1931, is featured here at a UNM meeting, encouraging the miners to continue their strike. Reece’s husband was a coal miner involved in the Harlan County War: a period of violence, strikes and bombings that began early in the Great Depression. One night, infuriated at the harassment of her family by local law enforcement, she wrote the song.
The film’s soundtrack is rich with sterling examples of Appalachian folk, with haunting fiddles and vocals as clear as a bell — a striking counterpoint to chilling visuals like the miners descending into the mines on human conveyor belts.
Strikes cannot be won alone. At many points the miner’s wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers seem to almost single-handedly keep the strike going through their unshakeable presence on the picket lines and rallying speeches at union meetings. They’re at the frontlines at night when gunshots ring out from a strike breaker’s pickup truck and they’re there shouting at the cops who try to force them to disperse. They lie down in the middle of the roads, blocking cars trying to ferry scabs to the mines. It’s not always a smooth process. Bitter arguments may break out at the union meetings as they figure out how to assign duties fairly, but this is part of the vital work of managing a strike.
After a long 13 months, the strike ends and the miners have (mostly) won. But victory comes at the cost of human life, multiple arrests and injuries and extended hardship for the families.
Harlan County, U.S.A. shows that there is almost no limit to the lengths a corporation will go to refuse workers their rights. At one point, a version of the contract delivers some of the demands but removes the right to strike from the grievance process. That the mining corporation was willing to grant other demands but not the ability to strike shows how effective strikes are. A work force united can successfully demand better safety standards, higher pay and more leave. The brutalities of capitalism are on full display in this film but so is the power in a union.
Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense (2014)
Youtube $3.99 or Free on Kanopy
As this film begins, the words appear on screen, plain and unadorned: “Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.”
These are from Ibrahim Frantz Fanon — French-West Indian author, political thinker, public intellectual and radical Marxist-humanist. Like the other excerpts used in the film, they come from the titular essay of Fanon’s seminal 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, which was immediately banned upon its release in France. Each of the nine sections in the documentary are shaped by his words, which are projected over much of the footage in large white serif font, their size and constant presence lending them authority and profundity.
Concerning Violence is narrated by Lauryn Hill and directed by Swedish documentarian Göran Olsson, who has made an unusual niche for himself as a white European who is best known for documentaries centering the voices of people of color. His first significant work was The Black Power Mixtape. But giving these words such prominence eases the discomfort of Concerning Violence being the work of a white Swede. The clear architect of this film is Fanon.
The documentary is comprised entirely of archival footage of anti-colonial movements in Africa in the 1960s and ’70s. It is less of a traditional documentary and more a visualized lecture on the topic of anti-colonial resistance. Each of its nine scenes details a different moment in time for a region, a significant event in the anti-colonial struggle. From an uprising in Mozambique to a labor strike in Liberia, each numbered vignette shows a struggle for liberation. These stories are told through the words of the freedom fighters and the victims of bombings, interviews with rebel leaders, and most of all, through Fanon’s words. The colonizer brings violence into communities at the same time proclaiming himself the keeper of the peace.
There are shots of white men on a golf course, the greens bright and unnatural in the brown plain, their black caddies trailing behind them. British couples play bocce ball on a well-watered lawn in white shorts, while their children swim in a private backyard pool. In a disturbing interview with a white man about to flee Rhodesia, he drips contempt for his “garden boy” who dreams of one day having a car.
In Tanzania, a missionary is interviewed outside with his wife, as in the background black men are digging trenches and raising up wooden beams. “You’re building a church here,” the missionary is asked, will you build schools and hospitals as well?” “We don’t know yet, he answers. “But first a church.”
Fanon’s words on-screen act as an explainer: “As soon as the native begins to cause anxiety to the settler, he is handed over to well-meaning souls who point out to him the wealth of Western values. I speak of the Christian church. She does not call the native to God’s ways, but to the ways of the white man.”
In an introduction to the film, scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak summarizes a key theme of Fanon’s essay: it is not an endorsement of violence, but recognition of a tragedy. That the very poor are reduced to violence because “there is no other response possible to an absolute exercise of legitimized violence from the colonizers.” Fanon’s words, and actions of the men and women who must turn to violence, tell this tragedy with clarity.
On Hulu; also available on Youtube, $2.99.
Hillbilly is partly a “going back home” narrative, partly a history of a stereotype and partly a political documentary. Directors Sally Rubin and Ashley York, both originally from Appalachia, show how stories about “hillbillies” are almost exclusively told by outsiders and are told with contempt and derision. They want to rectify that, by interviewing family, prominent intellectual figures from the area and locals about what it is to be Appalachian and what it means to proudly reclaim this identity.
From the beginning of the “War on Poverty” launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the nation’s attention was directed to the hills of Appalachia with the eye of an anthropologist, as if studying a strange and primitive culture. Then came an influx of outsiders with cameras, eager to snap photos of barefoot children on front porches and rusty cars on cinder blocks and then leave. It was in this era that our national stereotypes of Appalachians were solidified. Think of the hillbilly in pop culture from the 1950s onward: Deliverance, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Simpsons’ Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, each reinforcing the idea of the menacing redneck, the cultureless rubes, the incestuous rural dweller.
These stereotypes make it easy to ignore the experiences of those who fall outside of them. In this documentary, we meet Black Appalachians and LGBTQ youth, whose experiences are all but erased in popular culture.
While Hillbilly is well worth the watch, it does suffer from a lack of focus and clarity of purpose. It’s clearly a film that feels personal to the filmmakers, both of whom were raised in Appalachia, and it can be difficult to impose an arc onto a semi-autobiographical narrative. The footage was shot over the course of a few years, including during the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election; and that’s where Hillbilly loses some of its focus on identity. York and Rubin, while highly astute when it comes to investigating culture and identity, don’t examine the white feminist lionization of Clinton with the same attention they give to Trump voters.
The strongest portions of the film come from interviews with Appalachian scholars and activists like bell hooks or Silas House, musing on identity, race, and environmental justice. In a fascinating section that could have been expanded into its own film, Frank X Walker and Barbara Ellen Smith posit that by dismissing the people of Appalachia as poor trash, we start to believe that lives there are of lesser value.
This clears the way for coal companies to buy up mining land cheaply, and to cheaply purchase the labor of the people that they see as expendable for terrifyingly dangerous work. In a clip from a 1968 documentary, a mining executive declares confidently, “Without coal, you’d have very little of anything in this area. I think this area should be very happy that corporations such as ours are here.”
Decades of stereotyping, contemptuous reporting and biased political policy has led us to accept that the hillbilly is, on the whole, white, dumb, trashy and violent. Their existence is devalued, their only tangible worth existing in the labor they can perform in the process of wringing raw material from the land.
In a somber digression, Hillbilly describes the 2004 death of a toddler when a boulder was dislodged by a bulldozer cutting a road at a strip-mining site. The large rock crashed through a family’s trailer and crushed the boy as he slept. His death was almost unremarked-upon by the media.
Hillbilly would be a terrific double feature with the book Nancy Isenberg’s book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, which covers similar ground on the origins of hillbilly stereotypes, as well as the invention of the class system as we now know it.
Classism is a last refuge of those who would consider themselves “progressive” in all other respects. Quips about incest and missing teeth are seen as fair game, where we would immediately recognize the inherent cruelty in racialized or misogynistic jokes. Hillbilly is a plea for us to examine who the victims of these jokes really are and to question what happens to a people who are dismissed as worthless or forgotten until the next mining disaster. Classism can, quite literally, kill.
Eugene Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, written and produced by Bernie Sanders (1979)
Free on Spotify and Youtube
Bernie Sanders’s career has never been, as it is for many other politicians, simply a calculated march towards the presidency. His career as an activist is a useful reminder that electoral politics and the executive branch are not the only locations of political power.
In the late 1970s, following a series of unsuccessful runs for statewide office as a third-party candidate and before he made national news with his upset victory in the 1981 mayoral race in Burlington, Vermont, he turned to producing educational media for a small nonprofit, the American People’s Historical Society.
It was in this role that he created this half-hour retrospective on the life of Eugene Debs, in the form of an audio narration later released by the Smithsonian Folkways record label.
A native of Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs was a railroad workers union leader, a spellbinding orator and the Socialist Party’s perennial candidate for president during its heyday in the first two decades of the 20 century.
Speaking in his thick Brooklyn brogue, Sanders brings to life many of Debs’s most powerful words himself, which still ring true over a century later. On capitalism: “One class owns the tools, and the other uses them. One class is small and rich, and the other large and poor. One consists of capitalists and the other of workers. There can be no peace and goodwill between these classes, nor can the class conflict be covered up or smoothed over.”
Charmingly dated in its cultural references (“If you are the average American, you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak”), this brief film is otherwise still entirely relevant to today.