Norma Rae (1979)
August 10, 2019 1:25 AM - Subscribe

Though already in decline in the US, union membership was still close to 30% in 1973 when Crystal Lee Sutton (then Crystal Lee Jordan), a 33 year old mother of three, faced retaliation for her efforts to organize the textile mill where she had worked since age 17. Her actions were part of an ongoing struggle by activists and workers to unionize the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, where three generations of Sutton’s family had toiled for low pay under poor working conditions. Before she left the plant, she made a final stand that would be immortalized in film.

“I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word UNION on it in big letters, got up on my work table, and slowly turned it around. The workers started cutting their machines off and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet…”
Sutton's efforts were documented in a book, Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance, which was soon adapted for the screen by Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch. Directed by Martin Ritt and starring Sally Field as a semi-fictionalized version of Sutton, Norma Rae was released 40 years ago this past March.

Theatrical Trailer

Vincent Canby review in the New York Times:
The film's principal appeal, though, is not the manner in which this uphill struggle is fought and won, but in the way that Mr. Ritt, his writers and his cast reveal the natural resources of the characters — their grit, their emotional reserves and their complex feelings for one another. The politics of the film are worthy but they are never as surprising as the people, especially Norma Rae, whose personality is defined in her often comic, sometimes brutal, sometimes touching encounters with ex-husbands, lovers, children, parents, strangers.The film, which was shot in Alabama, places its characters in a recognizable social contest that neither parodies nor patronizes them. In short, swift, effective scenes "Norma Rae" dramatizes the limits imposed on imaginations by both poverty and tradition.

The film received several nominations, including the Palme d'Or at Cannes as well as Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Field won Best Actress at both Cannes and the Oscars and the song "It Goes Like it Goes" from the film's soundtrack won the Oscar for best original song. In 2011 Norma Rae was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

"It Goes Like It Goes" performed by Jennifer Warnes

[The following links contain spoilers]

40 Years Ago, Norma Rae Understood How Corporations Weaponized Race (Atlantic)
Norma Rae is Still a Classic (Jacobin)

The famous UNION sign scene

Crystal Lee Sutton dies at 68; union organizer inspired Oscar-winning film ‘Norma Rae’ (LA Times obit)
posted by theory (4 comments total)
I first saw this when it was screened in my high school Econ class. We all loved it, but found ourselves preoccupied with the seemingly unnecessary and unjust centering of Reuben in the story. I recall much of the class discussion focused on that fact more than the political content, but our teacher glowed with satisfaction at our passion nonetheless.

With (some) maturity now, I can see how the relationship between Norma Rae and Reuben has nuance and how the film is as much a 'slice of life' as it is a story about fighting for the union. This was really a golden age for that kind of movie, and the trailer clearly shows how the studio tried to market it in that vein.
posted by theory at 2:06 AM on August 10, 2019

I have not seen Norma Rae, but I have seen Silkwood with Meryl Streep. If you've seen Silkwood, would you say it is similar or different?
posted by Fukiyama at 10:39 AM on August 10, 2019

I only saw this for the first time in the past 5yrs or so, and Canby got to what struck me the most: the peopleness of the story. I had been basking in the assumption that this was a more or less business movie, "killing the final boss" "Ahd lack ta see ya trah" challenge-crisis plot, but it's played at a much more realistic level.
posted by rhizome at 1:55 PM on August 10, 2019

They share some story elements and are somewhat similar thematically, but have very different tones. Silkwood is more restrained, it has a slower cadence, the characters are a bit more opaque and their portrayals have more subtlety. The characters in Norma Rae are just as fully-formed but are more clearly defined and are presented more straightforwardly, with sharper confrontations.
posted by theory at 9:42 AM on August 11, 2019

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