Harry Caudill earned the distinction of having his life and works chronicled in a film. The rare human qualities of courage, intelligence, passion and vision were all present in this man from Whitesburg. He was, according to author and activist Wendell Berry, "a man rare in every way."
Caudill was an author, publishing countless articles and speeches, and 10 books, most notably Night Comes to the Cumberlands, which is credited with launching the War on Poverty in 1963. He was a state representative for three terms, championing education, mine safety and land protection.
Over a period of nearly 40 years, his leadership and efforts led to the eventual overturn of the broad form deed and the enactment of the coal severance and the unmined minerals taxes. As a result, some would say that he was anti-coal.
That would be untrue. In his own words, he was not against coal, but against the destruction of mountains and the mistreatment of the men who worked in the mines as well as the people who lived near and around them.
Three years ago I met his wife, Anne Caudill, at a writers meeting in New Albany, Ind. We spoke briefly, I mentioned how I admired her husband. We met again at the same function a year later, I had produced a film on the feuds of Breathitt County, and I mentioned that a documentary on Caudill would be a good idea. She said she would think about it. Another year passed, eventually I persuaded her on the merits of the project.
Filmmaking is no simple task, and finding the money for a project such as this is equally difficult. But, thanks to Christina Lee Brown in Louisville, close friends and supporters of mine and the Caudills, and Pinnacle Productions in Lexington, the documentary, Harry Caudill: a Man of Courage, Constant to the End, is underway, targeted for completion in the summer of 2015.
Caudill was a complex man, and the beliefs he espoused were often controversial. He was a champion of the poor and dispossessed; at the same time a harsh critic of government assistance. He was known to be a talented lawyer who chose not to represent large coal companies at a time when doing so would have meant great riches.
He was a tireless advocate for the land and people, sometimes fretful that his advice for them and the region was overlooked. He was on occasion chastised for being too critical of his own people, and some say he suggested mountaineers' genetics caused them to be victims of their own failures.
But most notably perhaps, Caudill was fearless in a time when voicing opposition to the powers that be brought with it potentially lethal consequences.
So, the making of this film will be no easy task. One could focus on his complexities, and produce a controversial and tantalizing film. But that would detract from his overall body of work that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. To focus just on his accomplishments would also miss the point, and were he alive to see it, likely anger this great man who cared so deeply about his mountains. No, the way I see it, a film about Caudill must show his accomplishments, while placing his complexities in perspective, but most importantly, it must continue his efforts to help Eastern Kentucky find its way.
It must remind us that our mountain region is blessed with beauty, abundant resources and fine people, and that Eastern Kentuckians must take the improvement of their beloved home into their own hands.
I grew up in Breathitt County on land owned by Deatons since 1870. I left in 1985 to find my way in Central Kentucky. The mountains were never far from my mind and I have since written two books about my home and produced a film.
I love Eastern Kentucky, but in many ways it is a paradox. I see it as both the best and the worst place I have ever lived. That contradiction of human emotion is another reason why I believe a film documenting the life of Harry Caudill should be made, and why someone from the mountains should make it.