From “Harlan County USA” To “Shut Up And Sing,” Barbara Kopple Captures Social Change: 52 Weeks Of Directors

by Lauren C. Byrd

Today, it seems like everyone is raising money on Kickstarter to film their own documentary, but back in the 1970s, filmmaker Barbara Kopple said people would turn away from her at parties when she told them she was a documentarian.

Not only did her first film, Harlan County U.S.A. ,become required viewing for those who make documentaries today, but Kopple was one of the few women directing in the late 1970s, whether it be scripted or documentary films.

Kopple grew up in Scarsdale, New York and studied psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. After she earned her degree, she went to New York to take a course at the New School. One of the women in her class was a secretary for the Maysles brothers, famous documentarians who directed Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. The woman told Kopple they were looking for an intern. “I was hired and I never went back to that class,” Kopple said in an interview with the International Documentary Association.


After interning with the Maysles, Kopple worked as an assistant editor for Barbara Jarvis and Larry Moyer. Then Kopple worked as part of a collective, which made one film together, Winter Soldier. It was an anti-war documentary about the war crimes hearing that took place in 1971 in Detroit. The film features the testimony of Vietnam veterans who participated in or witnessed wrongdoing and atrocities while fighting overseas. When the film was released, it was virtually ignored by the mainstream media and until its re-release in 2005, not much was written about the film.

When Kopple went off to make Harlan County, she said she didn’t feel much pressure in terms of thinking about who the audience might be for the film. “I was so young, nobody cared whether I did well or failed. I figured my parents would see it, friends would see it. The Whitney Museum was screening documentaries then and I figured if I was really lucky, the Whitney might show it. All I wanted to do was to be there and tell their story. I never thought about the end product. I just thought, ‘I want to relate to these people.’”

The film is about a coal miners strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. The coal miners wanted to unionize in order to receive better wages and benefits for their families, especially since the coal company was not concerned with the miners’ safety and had been negligent for years. The mining company hired scabs to work for the striking miners and even planted spies along the picket lines. But Kopple and her crew weren’t immediately trusted upon their arrival.

barbara kopple

“They gave us fake names,” Kopple said of the striking miners. “They said they were Martha Washington or Florence Nightingale, but they left a door open. ‘If you come tomorrow at 4:00 a.m. and be on the picket line…’ So we went up this mountain to find a place to stay, and we got up at 3:30.”

The next morning, it was raining and the mountain road they traveled down lacked side rails. A car sped by the crew and Kopple’s car toppled over in a ditch. “Everybody was fine,” she said. They got the equipment out of the car and walked to the picket line. “Harlan is very small and when everyone heard what happened, they put their arms around us and embraced us and that was the start of something very special.”

Kopple was promised $9000 to make Harlan County but the grant was later denied. This kept occurring until she finally raised enough money through various funds. She admits that she used close friends–even sometimes boyfriends–as camera people. “It was someone who had your back, who you enjoyed being with, who you trusted,” Kopple said.

“The editing room was where I lived. I didn’t have much money. Every day they’d come to my little loft on 11th Street to have lunch and we’d discuss things about the film together. It’s always important to pick people who you consider the very best and who you know,” Kopple said of picking crew members.

playback harlancountyusa2 fall2011

In terms of selecting a distributor for the film, Kopple was very clever about the way she approached the distribution of her first film. Instead of picking a distributor that mostly did documentaries, she chose Cinema 5, which carried primarily European auteurist titles. By picking Cinema 5, Kopple wanted to see if her film could break out of the art house league in which most documentaries were contained. If it didn’t, it signaled a barrier between the documentary and fiction markets. The film went on to play at the New York Film Festival and receive extensive critical reviews which led to its Oscar run and ultimate win in 1976. Paul Arthur, who wrote about the film for the Criterion Collection, cited Kopple’s resistance to the current markets as a recurring theme in her career.

“This de facto resistance to compartmentalizing movie genres or categories of production resurfaces in Kopple’s subsequent career, especially in her tenacious mixing of social analysis and entertainment. In this sense, Harlan County can be considered a signpost for recent nonfiction successes likeFahrenheit 9/11Supersize MeEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and The Corporation. As Florence Reece put it, “They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.” For Kopple, the absence of neutrality proved to be not just a virtue but a cultural prophecy.”

Arthur cites the influence of Harlan County‘s aesthetics on not only future documentarians, but fictional movies like Norma RaeHarlan County War, and perhaps even Silkwood. With so many political and historical films today–both fictional and documentary–it is interesting to see how Kopple’s combination of cinema verite style and socially conscious and political filmmaking is still being explored and developed by documentarians and studio filmmakers alike.

In 1991, Kopple directed American Dream about the Hormel Foods strike in Austin, Minnesota in 1985 and ’86. Kopple has also ventured into scripted TV and film, directing episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz. In 2005, she directed her first non-documentary feature Havoc, starring Anne Hathaway.

Shut Up and Sing was her next project, focusing on the group the Dixie Chicks and the aftermath of the George W. Bush related controversy they set off in 2003. “The film touches on issues like free speech and the war in Iraq, but it’s about these three beautiful women you’d never expect such controversy to happen to,” Kopple told the IDA.

Kopple also teaches and guest lectures at different universities. “I taught one semester at NYU and my class was incredible: Lucy Walker, Brett Morgen, and Nanette Bernstein — they were all my students. They weren’t lucky to train under me; it’s me who was lucky and they’ve done such wonderful things.”

mariel runningfromcrazy

Recently, Kopple released two new documentaries. Running from Crazy follows Mariel Hemingway, the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, and features her family struggle, including her sister Margaux, with depression and suicide. The film played at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The otherHot Type is about The Nation, the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the U.S. and follows the magazine’s staff on assignment while covering wide-ranging events such as Occupy Wall Street to rebuilding after natural disasters in Haiti. Most recently, in fall 2017, she directed A Murder in Mansfield, a true crime documentary about a domestic homicide in 1989.

Kopple is certainly someone who is passionate about following a story or issue that interests her, whether it’s a story she can tell through a documentary or a scripted film, but she’s also been a great resource for fellow filmmakers and women. Kopple told Women and Hollywood in 2013: “I think it’s important for women to support and encourage each other, which are sentiments that are sometimes hard to come by in this industry. We women need to offer our follow women filmmakers opportunities, advice, and most importantly, friendship. We are all in this together and we will all move forward together. Don’t get discouraged, just follow your passion — there is always someone who will help you along the way.”

This post originally appeared on

Top photo: Harlan County, USA

More from BUST

Sally El Hosaini Captures Queer Narratives And Masculinity In Egypt: 52 Weeks Of Narratives

2 Important Hollywood Diversity Casting Victories You Need To Know About

How Mean Girls’ Janis Ian Sparked My Sexual Awakening

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.