1979 Directed by Martin Ritt
It will surprise no one who knows me that the protagonist of Norma Rae was one of my heroes when I was seventeen. It was 1979, and popular culture had developed an earthy, working-class aesthetic. Punk rock had reached its peak. TV shows like Taxi and Alice were cheerfully gritty. Films about poor people, like Mean Streets, Dog Day Afternoon, and Saturday Night Fever, were mainstream.
Norma Rae—the plucky, brash unwed mother in a sweat-stained t-shirt mill worker who becomes a union warrior—embodied the times. What’s more, she was evidence of great things coming from small people, even women, and that was a story I needed to hear. I recently watched the film again, and Norma has lost none of her appeal.
Martin Ritt made many films, but most people have forgotten all but Norma Rae. His work is heartfelt, smart, and frequently hilarious (he directed The Front, for instance, based on his own experiences as a blacklisted artist in the McCarthy era). His films tend to have a formulaic skeleton, but he elicits from his players natural performances that counterbalance the plot machine working away in the background. Norma Rae isn’t perfect. Minor characters are undeveloped, and the film eschews the kind of hard political dialogue that a director like Ken Loach does so well. But Sally Field as Norma Rae is so engaging that these flaws are easy to ignore. Field was not the first choice to play the role, but she turned out to be integral, radiating energy and believable in her transformation from put-upon factory worker to hero of conscience.
Art direction, cinematography, and sound also contribute to the film’s authenticity. Ritt uses a handheld camera to construct a vibrant, tactile, and intimate world: cluttered rooms, perspiring bodies, clacking typewriters, dusty streets, ordinary faces, and above all, the factory—the stifling heat, the harsh light, the relentless toil, the devastating noise. In some scenes, actors must yell to be heard over clanging machinery, and the film would have less heart without these exhausting, cacophonous sequences.
For, of course, many real people spend a third of their lives in factories. The film is based on the experiences of a real person, Crystal Lee Sutton, who helped to organize a union at the J.P. Stevens Textile Mill in North Carolina, losing her job in the process. So powerful was the textile industry she opposed that it used its political sway to block Ritt from filming in town after town. The Opelika Manufacturing Corp. in Opelika, Alabama, a unionized mill, said yes. Workers from that mill “play” most of the factory workers in the film, something an employer in a nonunionized mill surely would have forbidden.
Within the confines of Hollywood tropes, then, Ritt presents workers as workers. Sometimes when I think of the billions of human beings who have made the things in my home, I am overwhelmed. I try to minimize my impact by choosing carefully, but I know also that someone must make the towels and teaspoons. Therefore, we need unions. Companies profit from giving workers only what they must. Historically, the best people to change that are the workers themselves, and they can do so only by resisting the old story that everyone ought to go it alone. It’s difficult, even scary, to fight that conditioning, and Ritt acknowledges this by making the inevitable vote very close. His message is clear, though: one rebellious worker in vulnerable, but 1000 rebellious workers stand a chance of changing their working conditions.
I am more privileged than a factory worker, but Norma Rae still speaks to me. I didn’t know when first saw this film that I would one day be a union representative. So far, I haven’t had an opportunity to stand on a table, surrounded by angry managers, holding a defiant sign. But I have been able, with my colleagues, to challenge management, and only being in a union has made that a safe thing to do.