American Dream (1990)
A Book Review by Kate Elora Rogers.
The Films of Barbara Kopple offers a thorough dissection of this formative figure in documentary filmmaking, while assessing Kopple’s embrace of other genres and storytelling modes.”
The prolific career of filmmaker Barbara Kopple spans the last 45 years and still dynamically churns today. From 1976’s Academy Award-winning film Harlan County, USA to a documentary series currently in production for Apple TV+ (The Supermodels), Kopple’s longstanding trajectory vigorously continues. Her tenacity as an artist is intelligently explored throughout fourteen chapters in The Films of Barbara Kopple, edited by Jeff Jaeckle and Susan Ryan, from Edinburgh University Press’s ReFocus American Directors series. Ranging from critical race and gender analysis to use of the documentary interview to structural considerations of the film industry, the book utilizes a breadth of lenses to pinpoint how Kopple’s ability to adapt to changing industry conditions is tied to her consistent artistic production. More so, the collection illustrates how Kopple’s skill at interviewing and connecting to film participants are defining traits of her work across genres and visual formats.
As the collection first notes there is scholarship lacking on Kopple’s career compared to her counterparts, despite her firm foothold in the film industry since 1976 and winning two Oscars for her first documentaries on U.S. labor rights: the aforementioned Harlan County, USA (1976) and American Dream (1990). Kopple is one of a handful of female filmmakers working in the 1970s, and one who formed her own production company, Cabin Creek Films, through which she still manages projects today. Interestingly, several authors draw on former interviews with Kopple citing her reluctance to self-label as a feminist. This sentiment recurs throughout interviews that are incorporated into various pieces in the book. The scholars successfully combat this evasive attitude with textual analysis and critical discourse of her films to suggest that the visual texts are inherently feminist, despite Kopple’s attempts to disassociate from that label. Betsy A. McLane’s writing foregrounds Kopple’s ongoing mentorship to future filmmakers, which can be seen as an key signifier of her feminist tendencies. Both male and female mentees comment on Kopple’s searing influence on their own filmmaking careers.
The robust sample of films surveyed in this volume shows Kopple’s impressive range of work. Each author’s entry point is enjoyably unique and furthers the field of documentary scholarship. While the introductions tend to regurgitate similar biographical details, they help to orient the reader and connect to the specific vantage of each writer. Although the authors are scholars, tonally their works are equally accessible to both academic and general audiences. The book is divided into three clear sections, opening on cultural critiques of Kopple’s works, moving into her use of the interview and music among other filmic techniques, and concluding with her artistic and professional influences.
Primarily known as a documentarian, Kopple took several forays into fiction, which are examined at length by Susan Ryan. The writer posits these works as ones that carry Kopple’s distinctive nonfiction deftness with cinema verité storytelling. Further, this volume regularly assesses Kopple’s ease in careening between documentary, television, and fiction. As Patricia Aufderheide expounds, this adaptability is often tied to the grim reality of access to funding. Even for someone of Kopple’s professional stature, her early ventures with grant-funded and personally financed filmmaking were grating, so fully funded opportunities that were offered logically guided her subsequent decisions to participate on projects. Several authors in this collection acknowledge this last sentiment as forming part of the core critique of Kopple’s tendency to embrace work-for-hire projects that partially inhibit her natural storytelling prowess seen in her earliest works. Still, these chapters return to what editor Jaeckle asserts in the opening, that “Kopple is a resourceful, pragmatic filmmaker who is less beholden to any one mode…than to telling a story in the most compelling way possible” (xvi). This endless devotion to quality storytelling is Kopple’s reigning commitment throughout her career.
The collection opens with scholar E. Ann Kaplan reassessing a 1977 essay she published on Kopple’s Harlan County, USA in which Kaplan claims “that [the] film could not mirror reality; all images were constructions, even if they were of real events” (19). While Kaplan still maintains this position in her revised essay (with a caveat explaining she’d now also consider Kopple’s physical entrenchment with her film participants during production), the author’s dedication to reassessing her initial thoughts on Kopple’s signature film shows the powerful grip Kopple’s work still maintains on contemporary film scholarship.
Several chapters, including “Gender Agency: Harlan County, USA, Shut Up & Sing!, and This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous” by Kate Hearst, examine Kopple’s treatment of female characters, undoubtedly a key focus of many of her works. But this reader finds the analyses of Kopple’s portrayal of race more intriguing. Specifically, the decision to favor forward-moving plot devices versus direct social or racial discourses, whether in nonfiction or fiction, is perhaps the starker critique of Kopple’s oeuvre deserving attention. Augusta Palmer discusses this most astutely in her chapter examining the intersectional approach to music in Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, Shut Up & Sing!, and Miss Sharon Jones! Palmer maintains that race is not at the forefront of these films and, particularly in Sharon Jones’ case, Kopple documents Jones’ cancer struggle over examining Jones’ identity as a Black woman and singer in the music industry. Palmer meticulously designs her argument to provide a racial analysis through the music. The three films, she argues, illuminate the extent to which the racial discourse is hidden. The scholar’s strength is in articulating that she has “no interest in taking Kopple to task for this failure to engage with race” (151) but wishes to honestly reckon with the limitations of racial and class discourse in the works. Her conclusion addresses that the music provides an opening for the viewer to do the work that the filmmaker has not. As Palmer’s chapter and others illustrate, scholars and audiences at times yearn for direct critiques on race, class, and gender from Kopple’s work, but Kopple’s interviews over the years show her adherence to constructing a compelling story built from trusting relationships with whom she films.
The Films of Barbara Kopple offers a thorough dissection of this formative figure in documentary filmmaking, while assessing Kopple’s embrace of other genres and storytelling modes. The contributors track not only Kopple’s individual filmmaking strengths but the thorny conditions of the film industry, including funding, distribution, and the impact of gender roles. Each chapter teases out these tensions. While the book grapples with criticisms of her work, it also demarcates Kopple’s inherent ability to form sincere relationships with those she records. In turn, The Films of Barbara Kopple is a balanced and well-researched addition to the ReFocus series and cements Kopple’s stature as one of film’s more versatile and persistent documentarians.
Kate Elora Rogers is a film programmer and postgraduate in media studies at the University of Texas at Austin.