Norma Rae (1979) holds up

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox
In a small North Carolina town either you worked in the cotton mills or knew/was related to someone who did. Since she was sixteen years old Norma Rae (Sally Field) was one of those workers getting paid minimum wage under power hungry employers. As a single mother with an immediate family whose health and livelihood has been threatened by the horrible working conditions, she joins New York union organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) to unionize the shop.

The film and character Norma Rae is based on Crystal Lee Sutton who battled higher-ups for ten years to unionize the mill she worked at. Film-wise it takes a while for this challenge to be accomplished, but you're not bored until then. About every half hour or so a new threat or obstacle ups the ante as Rae and Rueben work tirelessly to recruit new members. This movie is definitely Sally Field's and with a few good reasons. She is headstrong, tenacious, straight-forward, humorous, strong, and witty all the way through. The scene video captured below is a particular stand out.

Often with female-leading films, the female characters have to make way for the male counterparts. But with Norma Rae, I liked that she is never less or more than to them; always an equal.

Rueben is a hardass, her pal, and never quit New York guy. His and Rae's professional relationship borders on the boundaries of friends and something more. Ron Leibman gives a knock-out performance.

Rae's other leading man is her husband, Sonny Webster, played by  Beau Bridges. Their relationship is more pragmatic than anything romantic. On a date with all of their children in the woods, he suggests that their lives might be easier if they lived them together. There aren't many glitzy scenes of romance between them but a certain amount of mutual respect.

Between the three of them, the movie just barely offers a possible love affair between Rae and Rueben, but never fully goes there. The movie doesn't go out of its way to show that Rae is her own woman and "can't be tamed". Their trio relationship never becomes a pissing contest between the two men tugging her in a 'Who does she love more' war.

Director Martin Ritt keeps Norma Rae minimalist. It's not one of those overly optimistic or darkened films with that Hollywood message of "This is an INSPIRATIONAL movie!" Scenes, where the characters are tested the most, are not made melodramatic, though sometimes carry bizarre 1970s guitar melodies. The camera is just there, follows, and doesn't interfere with the actors.

After her father has died of a heart-attack inside the mill, been under the scrutiny of her bosses for being a Union member, and suffered the silence of her co-workers who know of the union but do not join the cause, Rae is fired after copying down a letter on the bulletin board which pits Caucasian workers against African American workers. Refusing to leave her station Rae stands up on the table with a sign marked 'Union'. Field's face is so riddled with the dedication, desperation, and pain her family has gone through to make this union work. Until this moment, workers had joined forces with the union and then bullied to leave for their own sake. Finally, the mill goes quiet as they stand with her. At the end of Norma Rae, you can't help but feel like you did the same thing.

Rating: ★★
Have you seen Norma Rae? What do you think?

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