Interview with Jared Hamilton, Filmmaker of “Mighty Harlan County”

by Jody DiPerna

In the summer of 2019, Blackjewel mine workers blockaded train tracks in eastern Kentucky as they demanded back pay from the mining company that, suddenly and without warning, fired the miners and cut bad checks. Filmmaker Jared Hamilton documented this dramatic resistance by workers in Harlan County who sought to be compensated fairly for their work. 

Hamilton is a photographer, photojournalist and multimedia artist based in Whitesburg, Ky. As an Appalachian born documentarian, Hamilton felt an urgency to chronicle the worker resistance. The miners were there for three months and Hamilton was a regular visitor. He filmed them hanging out, playing music, meeting with their lawyers and just talking to one another. The trailer for his film, “Mighty Harlan County,” can be viewed here

While the 2019 Blackjewel protest was entirely peaceful, Harlan County has been the site of intense labor struggles for nearly a century. In the 1930s, coal miners attempting to unionize were violently repressed by company thugs and the region was dubbed, “Bloody Harlan.” In the 1970s, violence again marred contract negotiation between companies and miners and was documented by Barbara Kopple and her crew in the film, “Harlan County, USA.” 

“Mighty Harlan County” recently won the ‘Spirit of the Mountains Award at the 2023 UPike Film and Media Arts Festival. Through PINJ and the Battle of Homestead Foundation, there will be a roundtable panel discussion of “Mighty Harlan County” with Hamilton, Lou Martin, Kipp Dawson and Jody DiPerna. Attendees can watch the film prior to the discussion. The filmmaker panel discussion is a virtual event on Thursday, May 11th at 7:30. Register here for that event. (There are two links — one for the film and one for the roundtable discussion.)

Here is our Q&A with filmmaker Hamilton. 

PINJ:  “Mighty Harlan County” is a really beautiful film. Tell me about when you first heard about the miners and their blockade. 

I was working — driving for DoorDash at the time as supplemental income — I was looking at my phone while I was waiting on an order to come through. I saw online that this (the miner’s blockade) was going on. This was the second day. I just got this feeling in my gut that I needed to go there. So I immediately went home and packed a bag and went down. The film starts with this storm because on the second day, when I got there, it was storming. I didn’t really get to fully talk to anybody that night because of the storm. I just came back as early as I could the next day and started filming from there.

PINJ:  When you got in your car and headed down there, were you thinking that you were going to make a movie?

Actually, I was not sure. I just knew that I needed to go document this. I was called to go document it. 

PINJ:  Did it take a long time for the miners and their families to trust you or were they open to talking to you right away?

No, at first, they would talk to anybody they thought would help get the word out. They were really open to it. At first. 

PINJ:  Did that change over time? 

They definitely got a little bit tired of it, but they were still open to me and the local news channel. But you know, it gets tiring when you’re dealing with that much media. There were definitely cases where I got better access than other people.

PINJ:  How long were the miners out there before the case was settled? 

Three months.

PINJ:  How were they managing financially? 

I think the main support that they were getting was crowdfunded. There was an Instagram page run by the activists that were helping out there. Random people would show up — people from the community. They didn’t have a union. There are no unions in coal mines in Kentucky at all because of the right to work law — that pretty much busted all unions because if the union goes on strike, scabs have the right to work. Maybe there are some people who have unions that are still going on now, but I don’t know about them. 

[Note:  Kentucky’s right to work legislation was signed in January, 2017. It was challenged through litigation, but in November, 2018, Kentucky’s Supreme Court upheld the law.]

PINJ:  I know you’ve got a background in photojournalism. Is this your first movie?

I made a 30 minute commissioned film for a museum. This is the first movie that I made just because I felt like I needed to make this movie. 

PINJ:  Your movie reminds me of Barbara Kopple’s movie. One of the great things about her movie is that she just let the miners do the talking. I feel like you did the same thing.

I just let the people talk about their story instead of some expert because, well, they are the experts. 

PINJ:  This is a story that goes back for generations and generations. It’s not not just these guys, right? It’s a long history, it’s a bigger story.

This felt like an essential continuation of the story. Both films (Kopple’s film and Hamilton’s) are about specific events, but in the same place. I did use some footage from “Harlan County, USA,” to refer to the dispute that film was about. Kopple was able to interview miners who were alive in the ’30s, when the Bloody Harlan stuff was going on, right. Those guys are gone, but I was able to find somebody who was alive in the 70s. He actually passed away recently. I thought it was still important to include that. 

And I had writers and a historian speak to that to that history, also. 

PINJ:  Did you grow up there?

Loaded question. I grew up in Pike County. Whitesburg (Letcher County) was where the punk shows were, so yeah, that was like always kind of my stomping grounds. I’ve lived here, in Letcher County, as many years as I’ve lived anywhere else.

PINJ:  Are there miners in your family? Did you grow up around people who worked in the mines? 

My brother still works in the mines. My papaw retired from the mines. 

PINJ:  What are you working on now?

I’m working on a project called “Familiar Paths” — it’s black and white photography shot on medium format film. I’m in the process of finishing, shooting for that project, and also looking for a publisher for that as a book. I’m also working on a zine. I’ve put out four volumes of a zine and I’m working on the fifth volume. 

I’m also working with Kentuckians for the Climate. We did a study on how Kentuckians view climate change. (View their landing page here.) This data was gathered before the tornado in Western Kentucky and before the big flood in Eastern Kentucky. I filmed interviews and did portraits and helped gather the data.  I’m also writing the report, which is a qualitative sociological study. It’s meant to be informal and non-academic, specifically using plain language. 

Keep up with Jared Hamilton and his work at his website

The other panelists are Lou Martin, Kipp Dawson and Jody DiPerna. 

Lou Martin is an associate professor of history at Chatham University, and an honorary member of the UMWA Local 1440. Martin is a founding member and President of the Museum Board of the Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, West Virginia. His book Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural-Industrial Workers in West Virginia is about the steel and pottery workers of Hancock County, West Virginia, where he grew up. 

Kipp Dawson is a retired member of UMWA Local 1197 in Washington County, PA. She was an underground coal miner in Bethlehem Steel’s (84 Mining Company’s) Cokeburg/EightyFour mine, 1979-92, and is active both in the UMWA and in the women miners organization, the Coal Employment Project/Coal Mining Women’s Support Team. She is part of a national project to collect, record, store, and make public the oral histories of women coal miners.

The discussion will be moderated by Jody DiPerna, senior writer and editor of PINJ, who grew up in the shadow of Allegheny Ludlum Steel Mill and USWA Local 1196. She is at work on a book about literary life, writing and reading in Appalachia for West Virginia University Press.