American Class Struggle on the Big Screen
Barbara Kopple won Oscars for her gripping documentaries, like Harlan County, USA, on the struggles of the labor movement. She sat down with Jacobin to discuss that and her more recent work, as well.
- Interview by
- Ed Rampell
Few filmmakers are as associated with chronicling the plight of the American working class like Barbara Kopple.
In 1977, Kopple won the Best Documentary Oscar for her classic Harlan County, USA about striking Kentucky coal miners. In 1990, she followed it up with American Dream about another strike — this one by Minnesota meatpackers knee-deep in the Reagan-Bush era. These two films are arguably to nonfiction cinema what John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is to Hollywood depictions of class struggle. Even today, they’re incredible, wrenching documents of solidarity, violence, and the ambiguities of labor politics in the most unequal country in the developed world.
In 2020’s Screening Reality: How Documentary Filmmakers Reimagined America, author Jon Wilkman describes the seventy-four-year-old Kopple as an “indomitable . . . brave, empathetic, and relentless” director. Kopple’s latest documentary, Desert One, sheds new light on the little-known 1980 clandestine mission to rescue American hostages seized in 1979 and held by Iranian students at the US embassy in Tehran. Desert One details the debacle of a botched covert operation by the Western imperialists who couldn’t shoot straight.
Kopple’s work is part of the Turner Classic Movies network’s upcoming Women Make Film series and she is copresenting Harlan County, USA September 15 on TCM. Desert One is being theatrically released on August 21 and via Digital On-Demand September 4.
Jacobin contributor Ed Rampell recently spoke with Kopple to discuss her latest film, our long tradition of military disasters abroad, and what it means to capture American class struggle on film.
How did Desert One come about? I’m not sure many Americans realize there even was a 1980 military effort to rescue the hostages in Iran.
It came about through the History channel, which was doing films about history which people didn’t know much about. And I really wanted to do Desert One for it. It’s a story that really needed to be told. The people who were part of it never really got their due. It was also a story of heroism and a reminder of the horrors of war. If you have any inkling of the history, you’re on the edge of your seat watching it.
It also looked at the roots of conflict between the US and the Iranian government. These were very elite soldiers who were at the highest of their ranks. They felt this operation was the right thing to do. Even if the mission seemed to have so many moving parts, they felt they should be freeing these fifty-two hostages. I really liked talking to different people and seeing what made them tick — these were people you don’t ordinarily get to talk to very much.
This is a forty-year-old story, yet it seems fresh and highly informative. Were you able to unearth any new information about the botched mission?
We have President [Jimmy] Carter, [Vice President Walter] Mondale, [Carter’s communications director] Jerry Rafshoon. This is the fortieth anniversary; so, it wasn’t as if everything was classified.
The biggest thing, though, is the satellite audiotapes, because this was a secret mission. There wasn’t one photograph of it. The men were all told to turn off their radios. And the only communication was this occasional satellite audio between the different generals, the president, and the vice president. That was absolutely incredible. They were very nonchalant, because they didn’t want anyone hearing what they were talking about. Listening, it was like we were reliving history, seeing it happen before our eyes.
Jimmy Carter is fondly thought of as a pro–human rights statesman and arguably the model for an exceptional ex-president. However, Desert One puts the Carter administration’s foreign policy in its proper context. In Ted Rall’s book Political Suicide, The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, he writes: “It’s nearly lost to history but Jimmy Carter’s presidency marked the first rightward lurch in modern Democratic politics . . . He provoked the Iran hostage crisis by offering refuge to the deposed dictator, the corrupt Shah of Iran.” What do you think of Carter’s role in the Iranian Revolution, particularly the hostage crisis?
Wow. Very big and important question. Carter wanted to end this in a diplomatic way. He wanted all fifty-two hostages to come home safely. That was his biggest priority. Of course, because he took in the Shah and got him medical help — because he had cancer — that made his relationship with Iran horrific. [Ayatollah] Khomeini just saw him as someone who was evil and wasn’t going to negotiate with him. Every time [Carter] tried to do something through diplomatic means, he was cut off because he wouldn’t return the Shah.
This mission was [Carter’s] way of saying, “OK, this guy’s not going to talk with me, I don’t know what’s gonna happen.” Going forward with this mission — and most military people always say, “Yes, this is great, of course, we can do it” — I guess Carter got brought in by that.
In retrospect, it seems Carter set the stage for his own electoral defeat by allowing the US-installed and -backed Shah — a flagrant human rights abuser — into the United States in the first place. That act of mercy by Carter toward a hated powerful figure unintentionally triggered the hostage crisis. And with Americans now captured abroad, it gave hawkish candidate Ronald Reagan a strong talking point against the president.
Unlike our president today who only cares about winning another term for himself by any means — lying, cheating, stealing — Jimmy Carter was willing to give that up to try to get these hostages home in one piece. I think he wasn’t politically motivated.
Desert One is very evenhanded with different points of view. You showed a disenchanted mother of one of the American embassy guards taken hostage who actually flew to Tehran.
Yes. She was marvelous, courageous. [Barbara Timm] wanted to see her son again. They took him out of his room or cell and took off his eye mask, handcuffs, sat him down. There was this rustling at the door, and as he says in the movie, “In walks mom!” [into the US embassy]. I just thought that was phenomenal.
Desert One is your latest in a long and distinguished body of politically charged work spanning decades. Can you compare the receptions to your more recent films to those that greeted 1976’s Harlan County, USA and 1990’s more ambiguous American Dream? In retrospect, those movies are shockingly frank about the struggles of organized labor in America, still a taboo topic for mainstream cinema.
Harlan County was treated extremely well, and it was also a victory for the workers. The people in the film learned a lot, became very strong, and weren’t gonna let anybody stop them. In American Dream, things changed — because it was a different story, a more complicated story. It was a union local fighting against their parent [union, the United Food and Commercial Workers] and also the Hormel meatpacking plant. And they all lost their jobs. And the wages were cut inside the plant, and people went back to work with half as much as they were making before. So, it was much different. And also, Reagan was president then.
What are the lessons from the unsuccessful 1985–86 Hormel strike depicted in American Dream? Should labor go on the offensive with the media? Or is it better to negotiate a slow surrender as many in the union argued?
It’s very hard to tell. They just really had their hands full. Different meatpacking plants were cutting people’s wages, closing, laying people off. You have to look at the situation, and each situation is different. There’s no one way to do it.
What do you think of the state of organized labor in 2020 America?
Well, labor unions have lost most of their membership. If you look at meatpacking today, it’s mostly done by people who don’t speak English. They’re immigrants, and they’re being forced to work in a way, because they have to support their families. And they’re the people getting COVID-19 more and more and dying. It’s a horrific situation everywhere you look out there.
The strike in Harlan County, USA got quite violent — as a filmmaker, you were actually there to witness some of it. What do you think of the current wave of protest and the response of police and federal law enforcement?
It’s extremely frightening. The whole [George] Floyd incident has buckled up such an incredible movement that we’re going to have this for a long time, and we’re going to really keep our eyes on what’s happening as far as police and military with no names on their jackets. I think this country is gonna change and get really stronger. Hopefully, we’re going to have to be able to rise out of the horrors that have been done to people over the last many years.
Your 2006 film Shut Up and Sing chronicles the surprisingly venomous outrage against the Dixie Chicks for opposing the Iraq War during the Bush presidency.
They’re now known as the “Chicks”! [Laughs.] That was one of the most extraordinary experiences to be able to film Natalie [Maines], Emily [Robison], and Martie [Maguire]. In every sense of the word — people standing up for each other and not betraying each other and the kind of friendship they had and how they wouldn’t back down. Then they won nine Grammys. It was one of the great experiences of my life.
Today, Trump attacks the media as “fake news” and “enemies of the people” and tries to actually block publication of books by John Bolton and Mary Trump all while attacking athletes like Colin Kaepernick for their political stands. What’s the current climate for dissent in Trump’s America?
All of us are more activated than we’ve ever been. Maybe more activated than we were for the antiwar movement and for everything else. It’s just been building up and we’re not gonna let down and we’re gonna continue to fight, to be in the streets, to do whatever we can, wherever our strengths are, to make this country much more equitable.
What’s next for you?
We’re doing a film we started before COVID-19 on civil rights. We’re filming Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, who was the second black mayor of New Orleans.