Given the Academy’s bent for in-the-moment sentiment in that department, the list of Best Documentary Feature Oscar winners that have since become consensus classics is a relatively short one. (In a number of cases, the winners don’t even seem a particularly good idea at the time.) But one noble exception is Barbara Kopple’s 1976 film “Harlan County, USA,” a stark, penetrating portrait of the 1972 Brookside coal miners’ strike that still stands as the signature work of one of America’s foremost documentarians. It’s the rare film that has broken out of the non-fiction ghetto and into the Criterion-approved cinematic canon.
Now its place in history has been further underlined by the Cinema Eye Honors, which has declared “Harlan County, USA” the winner of their annual Legacy Award for “classic films that inspire a new generation of filmmakers.” The award will be presented to Kopple on January 8 at the 7th annual Cinema Eye Honors ceremony in New York, where “The Act of Killing” and “Cutie and the Boxer” lead the nominees.
Earlier this year, the film joined the likes of “Hoop Dreams,” “Shoah” and “Bowling for Columbine” on a Cinema Eye list of the 25 most influential documentaries of all time, intended as a preamble to the Legacy Award. Previous recipients of the award include “Grey Gardens,” “The War Room,” “Titicut Follies” and “Sherman’s March.”
Kopple responded to the news with the following statement: “It’s such an honor and thrill to be recognized with a Legacy Award from Cinema Eye and Hot Docs. Cinema Eye is an invaluable event for the documentary community, a chance for us to come together and celebrate the important, entertaining and inspiring work of the past year, and our achievements. ‘Harlan County, USA’ taught me about life and death and what it means to stand up for what you believe in. Thank you for recognizing this film’s strength and ongoing relevancy today. Having the opportunity to make documentary films, to work with such incredible people, and to tell the stories I believe in, is a reward in itself.”
Kopple’s other films include “Wild Man Blues,” “Shut Up and Sing” and “American Dream,” a “Harlan County, USA” companion piece for which she won a second Oscar in 1990. Her latest film, the Mariel Hemingway portrait “Running for Crazy,” premiered at Sundance this year.