Norma Rae (1979)
Norma Rae (1979)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Release Date: March 2nd, 1979 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Martin Ritt Actors: Sally Field, Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman, Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley, Gail Strickland, Morgan Paull, John Calvin, James Luisi




t the O.P. Henley textile mill in North Carolina during the summer of 1978, Leona (Barbara Baxley) loses her hearing for a spell, due to the incessant noise emanating from the constantly whirring machinery. Her daughter, Norma Rae Webster (Sally Field), who also works at the factory, comes to her rescue and demands that the elderly woman receive proper medical attention. But the company isn’t concerned with such tolls on its employees’ wellbeing; it has profits to worry about.

“You need me, sir.” When New Yorker Reuben (Ron Leibman), a labor organizer for the Textile Workers’ Union of America, strolls into town hoping to set up a union, he’s met with paranoid police and angry citizens. What he’s selling is anti-American, communist hogwash. And so, Norma Rae’s father, Vernon (Pat Hingle), promptly kicks him to the curb, upset at the slightest whim of unionization. Yet Vernon is one of the many underpaid and overworked laborers in the tiny city, where the mill is the only major employer; he doesn’t realize it, but he could manage superiorly with support from the very type of organization he’s been conditioned to distrust. Even though Reuben doesn’t get very far with his pamphlets and speeches, Norma herself has a long history of speaking out about poor working conditions, which inspires her boss to promote her in an effort to hush her up, aiming to keep her away from the union man’s persuasive spiels.

Norma trudges through life, slaving away to care for her two children, while also contending with their deadbeat father (John Calvin), an abusive local man who uses her for sex, and the attentions of jubilant coworker Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges). But when she continues to run into Reuben around town, his words about greater wages and a safer workplace start to sound better and better. Perhaps the mill is due for union involvement. “Big companies get everything they want, you know. Everything goes to the rich man.”

Taking its time to set up locations and characters, the film does a wonderful job of creating an authentic feel. Field is the highlight, falling into the role with considerable genuineness, managing both her part as a distraught laborer (struggling in particular with a brief supervisory position that earns her no friends) and as a single mother. There’s also a hint of a love story, coming across as sweet yet simple, and respites for drinking beer and enjoying the little pleasures of nature. The supporting cast (Hingle, especially, playing a toned-down – but no less absorbing – father figure like his turn in “Splendor in the Grass”) is equally convincing and also given enough time to build up believable personas. With its attention to character details, it doesn’t matter that the heart of the plot – Norma Rae’s powerful activism – is slow to arrive; when it does, these players are real, credible, and potent.

Standing up to racism and hypocrisy and uncompromising working environments simultaneously, Norma Rae is a superbly inspirational character. She’s an underdog of the most realistic kind, scripted not to be cinematically tormented but instead tyrannized by universally understandable, grounded, ubiquitous evils: oppression by heartless executives. Even the expected retaliation by management – ranging from increased hours and less pay to rumors for the sake of character assassination to inciting physical violence – aren’t over-the-top exaggerations. They’re entirely in line with reality. When her support abandons her, when she’s outnumbered and bullied, her conviction rises to its highest level. Her character is a revelation; she’s ceaselessly engaging and terribly sympathetic, while also managing to be heartrendingly righteous and powerfully moving. Here, it’s clear that the greatest heroes are normal people summoning extraordinary courage in the face of prevalent adversity; Rae’s ordinariness lends to extraordinary onscreen entertainment.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10