Norma Rae (1979)

Martin Ritt’s worthy drama, “Norma Rae,” is a fictionalized account of Crystal Lee Sutton, the textile worker turned labor activist, living in a Baptist town in the Deep South.

Set in the summer of 1978, the narrative begins with the arrival of an outsider in what appears to be a dormant town. His arrival sets in motion events that will forever change the town and its workers. The film is original in its use of outsider: Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Liebman) is a Jewish labor organizer from New York. Dressed in tennis shoes, blue jeans, and a T-shirt, he projects the nervous, intellectual energy associated with Jewish culture and the Big City.

In the first sequence, Norma Rae (Sally Field) realizes that her mother, Leona Witchard (Barbara Baxley), has not heard what she had said twice. She rushes her to the doctor to examine her hearing. At first, the cool Dr. Watson dismisses the case’s seriousness, “it happens all the time.” His advice is to find another job. “What other job” screams Norma, “In this town, this is the “only job.” “You’re nothing to any of ’em,” she tells her mother–and herself. Indeed, the workers are vastly exploited: They are overworked and underpaid. Lunch breaks are too short. A sign in the dining room instructs: “Give your chair to a spinner, they only have 15 minutes.”

As other workers, Leona shows traces of beauty gone; she works with her face buried in a spider web of threads. Norma’s father, Vernon Witchard (Pat Hingle), doing backbreaking stoop labor, later dies on his job. In film’s most emotional scene, Norma grabs a piece of cardboard, scrawls in large letters “Union,” gets on a table and holds the sign. At first, the workers are bewildered, then slowly, one by one, they shut down their machines. The deafening noise gradually turns into a meaningful silence.

The film provides a new type of screen heroine, one that occupies an important place in the gallery of uniquely American heroines, Alice Adams, Frankie Adams, Alice Hyatt. A 31-year-old widow, Norma Rae is the mother of two children, one illegitimate, the other born shortly before her husband died. Norma strikes a unique friendship with Reuben. The two protagonists could not have been more different, though they are not social types. A leftist intellectual, Reuben is engaged to a Harvard University labor lawyer. His favorite leisure activities include poetry (Dylan Thomas), Chinese food, and the Metropolitan Opera.

By contrast, Norma has never traveled and has not read much. In fact, she has never met a Jew, thus initially possessing similar stereotypes about Jews as the other town’s inhabitants. “I heard you all have horns,” she says, “What makes you different” Reuben answers in one word, “History.”

However, they share in common true grit and strength to recognize a good cause and fight for it, which is more important for their friendship than similarity in backgrounds. Norma Rae, like Melvin and Howard, epitomizes the democratic ethos, the potentially open quality of American life. Norma Rae is depicted as a woman of loose morality. In an early scene, she is in a motel with a married man. Once a week, she is taken out and gets, as he describes “a big steak, pralines, and sex.”

When Norma tells him “there’s a lot of gossip,” and that she has decided to terminate their affair, he slaps her in the face, reminding her “you’re here to make “me feel good.” But in sharp deviation from conventions, Norma is neither punished for her promiscuous sexuality, nor for giving birth out of the wedlock. “Did you get married” asks Reuben. “He didn’t bother,” Norma replies. As for her husband, he died in a barroom brawl, six months after her second child was born.

“Norma Rae” also stands out as a film in its choice¬†“not” to sentimentalize the town, despite its many social ills. There is racism against blacks, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, religious fanaticism. For example, upon arrival, Reuben is accused by Norma’s father of being a “crook, agitator, and Communist.”

When Norma is promoted to a supervising job, her family and friends show overt resentment, suspecting she might side now with the management. Her father says he doesn’t “like to be pushed” by his own daughter, and the other workers don’t talk to her. Disgusted, she quits her job and goes back to work on the floor.

Nor does the film idealize New York’s union leaders, who reproach Reuben for using a woman with such “low reputation.” They may be committed to unionism and other causes, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships, they too possess stereotypes and rigid norms. Fearing a woman like Norma might give the union bad name, they demand that he ceases to use her; he defiantly refuses.

The closure of Norma Rae is remarkably consistent, standing in opposition to more conventional Hollywood endings. Norma and Reuben part with a respectful handshake rather than the cliched embrace or kiss. And even though there are still differences between them, they part as equals, both have benefited from the friendship. Reuben has changed Norma’s life, which is now richer; she is much more politically aware.

Reuben thanks Norma for her stamina, companionship, and commitment to the cause. The closest Reuben comes to expressing romantic interest is by saying, “I enjoyed looking at your shining hair.” Norma has gained self-respect and self-discovery of resources she has always had in her, but had to be revealed. Norma is now a new woman, with a new consciousness.

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