This weekend, Out of the Furnace hits theaters. It’s directed by Scott Cooper of Crazy Heart fame and packs a stacked ensemble, bringing together Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard and Woody Harrelson. The movie tells the story of two brothers living in Appalachian Pennsylvania, who get wrapped up in the dark criminal underworld of meth-dealing mountain folk, and while it sports a promising cast, crew and idea, it’s all for naught. It is thoroughly average, trying desperately to hit meaningful heights but falling short, mired in stock story developments.
If you’re thinking of seeing Out of the Furnace, I recommend you check out two great documentaries set in Appalachia instead: Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, U.S.A. and Julien Nitzberg’s The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. Half of Out of the Furnace is about life in the small steel-working community of Braddock, while the other half is about the seedier side of the communities peppered throughout the mountain range. And these two doc options each address one of those halves. Harlan County is the blue collar one, while The Wild and Wonderful Whites deals with the criminality side.
Harlan County is a widely acknowledged classic of the documentary form. For years, Kopple and her crew followed the twists and turns of the Brookside Strike of 1973. Nearly two hundred coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, fought the Duke Power Company for their right to strike. The conflict was vicious. Duke hired armed men to guard the strikebreakers, and they would periodically fire on protesters. This is captured on film, mind you. At the same time, a contentious election for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America ended with the incumbent contracting the death of his opponent. All of this happened while Kopple spent time with the striking miners and their families, letting them tell their stories to the cameras.
It’s a masterful portrait of class struggle and breathless indefatigability. And it is all captured in visceral verité immediacy. In one sequence, the cameramen are knocked down by goons as they descend on picketers. Organizer Lois Scott pulls a gun out of her bra during a fiery rallying speech, and it’s one of the most electrifying things you’ll ever see in a doc. The viewer is transported, brought into the thrall of this conflict and, more importantly, into the lives of the people who fought it.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia follows people on the opposite end of the spectrum of respectability from that of striking miners. The namesake White family of Boone County, West Virginia, is a fearsome collective. They almost seem to revel in acting like every horrible stereotype of rednecks rolled into one package. Like Kopple, Nitzberg and his crew spent a good amount of time getting to know their subjects, filming the Whites for a full year. During that time, there were numerous scuffles with the law, interventions from child protective services and random acts of terrorizing locals.
What keeps the doc from being base hicksploitation is that it delves into the reasons why the Whites act as they do, and it ends up making the film and its subjects closer in kin to Harlan County than one might think. The Whites live in a culture where life expectancy is grim, both in regards to quality and length. They have simply decided to embrace what they view to be a hopeless lot in life. This attitude is bred from generations spent working on behalf of entities like the Duke Power Company, outsiders who use the locals to extract what they want, at the cost of their health and decent living conditions. The fate of the Whites is the same that awaits all of those who lose the fight with the Dukes of the world, or who choose to never fight at all.
Together, Harlan County, U.S.A. and The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia draw a terrific portrait not just of life in the Appalachians but of life in lower-class America. The former film was made on the cusp of a societal sea change in America, as the legs were knocked out from under our unions, and the latter was made in the aftermath of that shift. It’s a much more authentic look at this region than you’ll get from Out of the Furnace. And both films are more compelling than the fictional one, to boot.
Watch The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia now via Amazon Instant Video or iTunes