MOVIE: **** (out of 5)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5)
Sally Field as NORMA RAE
Beau Bridges as SONNY
Ron Leibman as REUBEN
Pat Hingle as VERNON
Barbara Baxley as LEONA
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Martin Ritt
BY KEVIN CARR
Today’s world is far different than it was in the 1970s, and the subject of labor unions has gone up and down through American politics over those years. While I am trained as a teacher, I do not teach professionally. (Though it is notable to say that my wife does teach, and she is part of her union.) That’s not to say that teacher conditions in 2014 are anywhere close to the conditions faced in non-union textile mills in the South during the 70s, but both are of great interests to labor unions.
Within popular culture and within legislatures of this country, labor unions have come under attack. This has happened in governmental bodies with attempts to pass union-busting laws at the state level, and in popular culture we’ve seen direct attacks on labor unions in films like “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down.”
I’m not here to defend labor unions against all criticisms because they do fall under the general law of the universe that power can corrupt. However, I think that in today’s context, we can easily forget the conditions that spawned the need for them, and the reasons why they were met with resistance when they were coming to power.
Watching “Norma Rae” in today’s context is like watching the beautifully shot and expertly crafted film “Hoffa” when it came out on Blu-ray two Christmases ago. Although stylized and made with a political purpose, both films depict the worst of the worst conditions that can turn an indifferent worker into a die-hard union man. Neither film should be forgotten in our society, even if worker conditions have improved greatly because we are only a generation or two from that treatment today. Things could revert faster than one might expect.
Still, at its heart, “Norma Rae” isn’t a button-wearing union film as much as it is a character study of one woman who is pushed to the point of doing something spectacular. Sally Field plays the title character, a single mother who works at an oppressive textile mill. After seeing the terrible physical impact it has on her family, Norma Rae works with a national union representative to bring collective bargaining to her job.
Field made this movie when her reputation was still playing the cute girl from her “Gidget” and “Flying Nun” days. It was the first movie that made people take her seriously as an actress, and she was awarded with her first Oscar for it (before she realized that we “really like” her several years later with her win for “Places in the Heart”).
To be sure, this is Field’s movie, and she has a lot to chew through. In particular, the character struggles with social issues as well as oppression at work. Some might say that it’s the struggles she faces as a woman outside of her job – existing during the sexual revolution but being judged mercilessly by people for being a single mother – that drives her to fight so passionately for her job. The reality is that those two elements of her life are inseparable. There is no choice for her to get a different job in a community like this. Similarly, there’s no choice for her not to be a mother. She has to take care of her family.
Had I seen “Norma Rae” when I was younger, either as a child when the film was released or even in my younger and more idyllic days as a twentysomething ready to take on the world, I might not have connected as much to it. Indeed, it is dealing with decades of life’s problems that are thrown at you that makes you understand Norma Rae’s struggle.
We may not all be fighting to bring a union to a work force saddled with crippling conditions and criminally low wages. We might just be people getting by, trying to handle the challenges that life throws at us. That is where Norma Rae succeeds.
And that is where we can find a certain degree of triumph. “Norma Rae” is not a film with a happily ever after ending. It is about trying to win a victory – no matter how small – and then to move onto the next challenge (which will likely be a result of that previous victory).
The newly-released Blu-ray of “Norma Rae” includes a 20-minute “Hollywood Backstory” featurette which describes the challenges faced in making the film which eventually became a Hollywood legend.