Freedom can be understood in many ways, but anyone who ever worked a factory job before the advent of unions understands freedom as the right to be treated as a human being, rather than as a machine part that can be worked to death and then thrown away. Martin Ritt’s 1979 movie, Norma Rae, shows the difficult road to obtain that freedom.
The following review discusses the entire movie, including the ending, so if you don’t want the movie spoiled for you, I suggest you see it first.
Norma Rae (Sally Field) is a woman in her twenties who works at a textile factory in a small southern town, the only real job available to local workers. She has been married once and has one child from her ex-husband and another she earned in the back seat of a car with another local boy. Struggling under minimum wages, she lives with her mother (Barbara Baxley) and father (Pat Hingle), who also work in the factory. Her only recreation seems to be meeting a traveling salesman for sex whenever he passes through town. Although all of the workers at the extremely loud factory are upset about their working conditions, Norma Rae is the only one who complains to her bosses.
A union organizer, Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) comes to town representing the Textile Workers Union of America to try to organize the workers, but is met with animosity. Most of the workers fear for their jobs in a town where their jobs are the only jobs to be had. Norma Rae makes friends with Reuben as he settles in for a long battle. At a bar, she meets a local man she had known as a child, Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges) and they go out for a beer. They meet Reuben at the bar and he gives them a ride home because they are too drunk to drive.
Sonny takes Norma Rae out to the lake with her two children and his own daughter from his previous marriage and he proposes to her. Shortly afterward, they are married and settle into their own home. The plant manager gives her a promotion and a raise to a job where she spot checks the work of the other workers, but she loses her friends because of it, so she goes back to her regular job on the floor.
When her father dies of a heart attack because his manager won’t let him take a break when he feels breathless, Norma Rae joins Reuben in his fight to establish a union. She heckles and badgers her neighbors and works tireless hours with Reuben trying to convert people and get enough votes for the union to go through. The plant managers try a number of tactics to break up the union organizers and one of them is to plant a letter on the bulletin board accusing black workers of running the union effort. This leads to several beatings of African American workers. Furious, Reuben asks Norma Rae to get the text of the message. She tries memorizing it, but that fails and Reuben tells her that she must simply write it down. She replies that she will be fired, but Reuben assures her the union will stick up for her.
She stands at the bulletin board writing down the message when she is confronted by management. They bring her into the manager’s office and fire her. She insists on writing down the names of all the managers present and they try to force her to leave. As they escort her across the factory floor, she turns on them, defiantly proclaiming that they will have to get the sheriff to throw her out. Standing up on a table, she writes the word “union” on a cardboard sign and turns in a circle showing it to the other workers. One by one, they shut down their machines in support of her effort.
The sheriff arrives and takes her to jail. Her one phone call is to Reuben who bails her out and takes her home. She wakes each of the three children and sits with them on the sofa, explaining what she’s done and reciting her mistakes in life, showing them pictures of their fathers and telling that in spite of all of her mistakes, she has done the right thing in standing up for the union, that her freedom and their future is the most important thing of all.
Her example inspires more people to join the union and when the vote is taken, they narrowly win certification. Before leaving town, Reuben asks her what she will do now and her answer is simple and concise: “live.”
Based loosely on a 1975 book, Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann, the script by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch fictionalizes the real Crystal Lee Sutton into Norma Rae Webster, placing the story in a different town, and creating characters different from the real ones in the original book.
Martin’s Ritt’s direction is terrific and one of the reasons Norma Rae is such a good film. His use of the hand-held camera keeps the movie immediate and kinetic. The other reason it is a terrific movie is the performance of Sally Fields as Norma Rae. At the time, she was just beginning to overcome her early type casting as the joyful, innocent girl in the television show The Flying Nun. Just prior to filming Norma Rae, she had won an Emmy Award for one of the best television dramas ever, Sybil, in which she played a girl with multiple personalities. Part of what makes her performance so appealing is that she keeps it so down to earth. Not once during the entire movie is she unbelievable as this uncomplicated, emotional Southern girl who must stand up for her rights. It is such a good performance that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. It changed her life and broke her out of the mold she had been set in.
The supporting cast is excellent, including a terrific performance as by Ron Leibman as Reuben. He was kind of shafted in the credits and advertising. Beau Bridges was a bigger name and even though he has a much smaller role, he was given billing over Leibman. Both Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley are terrific, too, as are the children in their smaller roles.
This movie is very powerful and it holds a just place in film history. It should be seen by everyone, but especially those who are unsure what unions are and how they came to be. It is an excellent film.