Norma Rae September 15, 2022
2 Hrs., 3 Mins.
orma Rae (1979) opens in the middle of a workday. Like most spent at the cotton mill, it’s one pockmarked by anger and exhaustion. But the title character (Sally Field), a single mother of about 30, is particularly pissed this shift. During her lunch break, she notices that her mother (Barbara Baxley), unresponsive to anything she says, has completely lost her hearing. When Norma furiously brings
this up to her immediate supervisor, she’s met not with concern but a shrug. This is just something that happens. Maybe her hearing will return; maybe it won’t.
That chilling indifference, we quickly understand, is so built into this company’s culture it’s practically wallpaper. It’s why Norma’s mother didn’t bother standing up for herself when she noticed something was off: if you’ve been here long enough, you know what to expect. You aren’t allowed to sit while working unless you get a doctor’s note, even though most tasks don’t require standing. There once were windows around the factory, but the company boarded them up, figuring they were in some way messing with productivity. One woman talks about how her husband died from brown lung after years working at the factory; a family member of Norma’s has a heart attack next to his workstation after a supervisor downplays worried claims of a numb arm. Basically nobody who works here can easily quit and get a better job. In this small, economically disadvantaged North Carolina town, the textile industry dominates all other steady-work options. And the wages are so bad that nobody can amass a savings account to buy ship-jumping time.
Early on in the film, Norma gets a $1.20-extra-an-hour promotion as a “spot checker.” Not because she’s a particularly good worker, but because, with her recurring complaints about things as simple as more reasonable breaks, supervisors figure it will shut her up. But in this movie, which is based on the true story of a woman named Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae will only get louder. After a handful of meaningful chance encounters with Reuben (a tremendous Ron Leibman), a New York City union organizer who’s come to town hoping to help the plant’s abused workers, she effectively becomes his closest associate. She works extreme hours after work trying to corral her 799 co-workers into organizing; it’s the first thing for which she’s been this passionate possibly ever. Garnering support initially is expectedly difficult: only 17 people show up to the first informational meeting. Prospects of unionizing are scary when there are mouths to feed and no other financial options if your at-will employers happen to retaliatitively fire you. And the company is unafraid of fear tactics: it hires men to beat up union-interested workers when they have a moment alone, and it spreads anti-union propaganda to push workers on the fence completely back off it.
Norma’s fears don’t paralyze her. She’s too close to her wits’ end to have anything that meaningfully widen her tunnel vision. (This comes much to the chagrin of her new husband, a nice-guy gas-station attendant played by Beau Bridges, who complains insufferably about the increasing lack of investment in her domestic responsibilities.) Norma is of course tired of the inhuman conditions she’s subjected to, but she’s also plagued by visions of a bigger picture where her children will very likely work at the same plant, if not for life then for at least a few years. Giving one of her best performances, Field is fantastic as a woman practically burning with devotion, unwilling to squander the opportunity to make the kind of change she’d never much thought about.
You don’t sense Martin Ritt, who directed, or Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., who wrote, laboring trying to meet the criteria of the “inspiring" biopic, which tends to pay so much attention to its narrative shape, and the satisfactions it can bring, that the characters can feel like figurines decorating it. In Norma Rae, it’s the other way around. These people, and the lives they’re living, strike us as lived-in; you can picture how they’d existed before we met them, and we can see where they’re going next. As they creep closer to a fairer workplace, we feel like we're journeying alongside them, not from too great a distance. To watch Norma Rae is often to feel like a fly on the wall, suffocated by the humidity and stench of the factory and scorched by the heat beating down all summer long. We can almost feel on our skin why trips to the local watering hole — the closest thing to paradise this town has to offer — are as much an outing as a grounding necessity.
Norma Rae isn’t electrifying by force. Instead, just by carefully dramatizing the process of unionization, it captures the simple thrills of workplace organization — the pleasurable charge felt when you realize it’s possible to have a say in an arena where you never thought you’d have one. In the film’s most famous scene, Norma, at the peak of her exasperation, stops working. She stands atop a table, hoisting up a sign she’s just scribbled on (it simply says “UNION”), and simmers, with her co-workers one by one shutting off their equipment in solidarity. The movie as a whole hasn’t lost any of its charged relevance. But it’s easy to see why this is the moment enduring as Norma Rae’s most indelible. It’s the one that best sums up how workplace unity, once achieved, can completely change the energy of the room — and, in a moment like this one, soothe the crush of exploitation with a mere gesture of empowerment. A