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Bucket List Movie #476: Norma Rae (1979)

Updated on January 8, 2015
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Martin Ritt.
Martin Ritt. | Source

Today's BLM, 1979's Norma Rae, is one of those rare "based on a true story" films that gets it all right. Based on the heroic Crystal Lee Sutton, a Southern woman who, weary of low pay and wretched working conditions, fought to unionize employees of the powerful JP Stevens company. A settlement between the workers' union and JP Stevens was reached in 1980. Victory was achieved, thanks to a scrappy woman who refused to give up.

Norma Rae changes a few names, makes an embellishment here and there, but Sutton's struggle feels authentic, and the now iconic "Union" sign scene? Yes, dear readers, like Helen Keller and the water pump, that actually happened. Sutton's story was begging to be told, but no one had much faith in the screenplay: a story about unions? Boring! Set in some tiny Southern town no one's heard of? Phooey! And the protagonist is a woman?! Blasphemous and unorthodox! Nowadays, with the numerous indie studios that can turn out unique stories, Norma Rae wouldn't have too much trouble being made (even though people can't seem to make more screenplays with female protagonists).

Crystal Lee Sutton, a.k.a. the real "Norma Rae".
Crystal Lee Sutton, a.k.a. the real "Norma Rae". | Source
Sally Field as Norma Rae.
Sally Field as Norma Rae. | Source

Our titular heroine is a somewhat uneducated single woman with two kids from two different fathers, works in the textile mill with her parents, and spends her free time dating worthless creeps and ignoring gossip about her loose reputation. She's no girl scout, but Norma Rae is fiercely loyal to her loved ones, and she grows increasingly frustrated with the unyielding back-break that she and her parents endure at the mill. The din of the machines, despite earplugs, causes some of the employees to go temporarily (or permanently) deaf, there are no accommodations for menstruating women, and employers seem to enjoy creating insidious racial tension between white and black workers. Norma Rae complains to her bosses, but all she gets for her trouble are patronizing remarks and ignored requests. Unfortunately, it's a small town, jobs are scarce, and everyone has families to feed. There seems to be little choice but to accept the status quo.

Then one day, a union organizer named Reuben (Ron Leibman) comes to town to inspect the mill and rally employees unsatisfied with their working conditions. Reuben is definitely a black sheep; a sardonic Jew from New York City (Leibman deftly plays him as a person instead of a cliché), he immediately arouses disdain and suspicion from everyone at the mill. The powers that be don't want him stirring the pot, and the workers are afraid he'll cost them their jobs. Norma Rae, on the other hand, is fascinated by Reuben, and is eventually inspired to unionize. It's a rough, not always exciting or productive battle, with under-attended meetings, half-hearted enthusiasm from workers, and the mill employers trying to block their progress in any way they can.

Reuben's mission becomes Norma Rae's. Though devoting herself to the union takes time away from her kids and antagonizes her new husband (Beau Bridges), Norma perseveres. Even when her efforts land her in jail, she firmly tells her children, "I believe you should always stand up for what you think is right".

Norma Rae does just that, and more.

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Norma Rae is a powerful feminist film that hasn't aged a day since its release more than 35 years ago. The fact that this woman was stonewalled for trying to create conditions for employees where they're treated as human beings instead of pack mules is appalling. It was directed by Martin Ritt, who directed another BLM, Hud. A director who was once blacklisted by HUAC, Ritt was a no-nonsense director with a clear-eyed perspective on justice and the triumph of basic human goodness. He brings a vital authenticity to Norma Rae, which is a major contributor to its longevity.

The film was also a boon for star Sally Field. Despite winning an Emmy two years earlier for her harrowing turn in the legendary TV movie Sybil, Field still couldn't shake her damned Flying Nun (seriously, who thought that was a good idea for a show?!) or Gidget image. If she had any trouble escaping typecasting, Norma Rae easily removed it. Field hits all the right notes as Norma Rae, juggling girlish grit and complex maturity. With her large brown eyes, down-turned mouth and natural intensity, Field has always reminded me of a wounded wild animal; vulnerable and ostensibly sweet, but with the ability to bite when threatened. She went on to win the Best Actress Academy Award for Norma Rae, beating out Jane Fonda and Marsha Mason, both of whom turned down the role of Norma Rae. Funny thing, show business.

Norma Rae was a box office hit, proof once again that films that dare to go against the popular grain are the ones that often wind up as classics.

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