An on going series I'd like to keep up on where we look at various movies and their social and political impact.
Last go around we hit a titular pivot in cultural history with Pulp Fiction. This time around I'd like to pivot to the late seventies with a film that just screams out about class struggles and labors importance, 1979's film Norma Rae.
If you please, shut down that machinery and join me in the break room after the orange squiggle.
Released in March of 1979, it stars Sally Field as Norma Rae and her struggles with life, and her general place in the world while she toils with many others at a textile mill in a small town in the rural south. It is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton and her struggles to unionize the J.P. Stevens owned plant in Roanoke Rapids. The film was directed by Martin Ritt and written by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch. It went on to critical acclaim and won Sally Field a well deserved Oscar.
Interesting to note that Writt was always an advocate for the underclasses as well. He even was even blacklisted from television during the Red Scare. His breakout as director was the wonderfully made, Edge of the City, a film about class lines, racial barriers and the tempers that those conflicts give rise to. The influences of his blacklisting from TV and being accused as a communist, influenced many of Writt's films including Norma Rae.
The movie is a virtual smorgasbord of class warfare themes and to pick one from another would not do the movie justice. Many people however, are only familiar with the film through meme, the classic pic of Sally Fields standing on the work table holding up the cardboard placard with the lettering in bold dark print, spelling out the word UNION. It is a powerful moment in the movie, and we'll get to that in a bit. In previous diaries I would break down the film scene by scene and their importance towards the overall thematic point, however I am going to refrain this time. This movie is far to powerful lay the entire thing out here and for those that might not have seen it, I really really do not want to ruin it for you. So instead I'll pick out a few key moments and perhaps entice you if you haven't, to go watch the movie.
Fans of the film often go on about its portrayal of union struggles, however I propose that the movie is about much much more. It is a clear symbol of not just labor struggles, but the human struggle and the solidarity we can find in each other. Although Sally won an Oscar for her role, the remainder of the cast does an excellent job, especially an often overlooked Beau Bridges as Norma Rae's husband later on in the movie.
The film portrays a young Norma Rae, widowed mother with two children, one out of wedlock. She struggles through life and we find her working for pittance wages at a the O.P. Henley Textile Mill. The plant is a source of life for the town and employs numerous people, however, as we see in the opening shots, all is not well in the town of Henley. As the movie progresses we get a first hand account of the costs this mill is extracting from the town and the people in and around it. The opening scene lays it out very clearly how much the mill cares for its labor.
Later on we get a glimpse in the day to day life of a mill worker in Henley. Great shots which setup how very simple their lives are that then are later contrasted with how complex they really can be. During a prelude to this complexity we get great setups such as the interaction between Norma's father and an outsider. A simple life of the mill worker is on display at Norma's parents home, displaying her life living with her parents when we then hear a knock on the door. The father played by a very often underscored Pat Hingle, answers the door to Reuben Marshasky, played very simply but well by Ron Leibman. Reuban has rode into town from New York as a union organizer for the Textile Workers Union of America, he's arrived at the door looking for a room having been driven from town by the sheriff. Imagine that, the law using force against a voice for the people.
Later in the movie Norma and Reuben meet by happen stance. The reason for her being at the motel and her parting it to then meet Reuben are pretty important to the film. It sets Norma as a naive woman of the south, her worth determined by men in power. As the movie progresses however, and as a wonderful platonic relationship blossoms between Reuben and Norma, we see Norma grow into someone though while maybe not quite as educated as Reuben, understands where she is as a class and how hard she must fight to make things better.
Reuben throughout the movie is setup as the intellectual while Norma is clearly portrayed as the the common clay of the south. But despite very stark differences, Reuben a Jewish man from New York, Norma a factory worker and single mom, they learn and grow from each other. The movie always has moments where little incorrect things we tend to think of people and things we hold as stereotypes are drug out into the light and beaten into oblivion so that we always see, that in the end, we may not have the exact same commonality but we all have common cause. By the end of the film this friendship between Reuben and Norma does an amazing job of reminding us of our humanity and unity in the face of what at times may seem insurmountable odds.
The film does an excellent job of just how hard and how long this fight for equality is. A fight for equality of class, equality of race, nay equality for all is shown that while a battle may be won, the war is much larger than we might realize. But the movie shows us the strength we may find through each other for fighting this larger war though, especially in the closing shots. Though departed from each other, its obvious that the bonds have been built to continue the fight for justice; its pollyanna for pollyanna's sake but that's not the intent of the movie.
The reason this movie shines, is the depth of the characters involved and the wells from which they draw strength. Though the politics of the movie are important, it is how the characters respond to the politics that are important. Beau Bridges has an amazing scene with Sally Field near the end of the movie that really cements how we draw strength from each other. Norma having been working 16 hour days, a full shift at the mill then straight to the union organizing office, has been ignoring her family to some degree. As her husband, Sonny, he is upset but through wonderfully filmed scenes and powerfully delivered dialogue, Sonny affirms his love for Norma and lets her know how much he is willing to give to her. I am reminded as the strength I drew during the occupation from my own spouse. How much she may have thought I was crazy to do it, but the support she would give regardless, and I am stealing a quote here 'she' "always had me on 'her' mind".
The film also displays a wonderful transformation of Norma. In the beginning of the film she starts as a naive rural southern single mom. However as the movie progresses, with the prodding of Reuben, we see Norma's eyes begin to open to the world at large and how her employers are taking advantage of her and her workers. In powerful moment she is hooked into the unionization of the plant after a wonderful speech from Reuben. Once we hit that scene, her transformation from naive backwoods country girl to strong leader and powerful warrior is all but inevitable and the powerful union placard shot is all but assured for the viewers.
About that scene by the way?
The pivotal scene where Norma is copying down an illegally posted letter, confronted on a small infraction, to then standing on the table with the placard was filmed verbatim to the actual event. Crystal Lee, the woman the movie is based on, actually for real did all that. From the confrontation at the bill board to being dragged out by the Sheriff, this scene was filmed exactly as it happened in real life. Through the movie you can imagine yourself as a textile worker on the floor of the mill that day. The feeling of shutting down your station to stand in solidarity is something the movie helps you experience. While not in a mill I can tell you its something wonderful to stand locked arm n arm with someone and this movie captures and allows you to experience it so well.
In the end for the film, as far as the story goes, it goes exactly where you think it does. The movie is not without its flaws however, is any film ever perfect? There are lull points and the movie never fully explores the lengths to which management actually went to try and break the workers spirits. We get only passing shots of how taken advantage of the town is. Also the end of the film has a pretty obvious conclusion, but that is not this movies strength. That strength is not in the cinematography, or the plot line, or even score. No the film is powerful in how it depicts the struggle through the eyes and interactions of the characters. Its a struggle we are all familiar with and this is why the movie resonates so well.
We find that struggle staring at us in the face every day, working folks just trying to eek a living and move ahead for a better life. From the single mom who struggles to care for her children, to the couple living paycheck to paycheck unsure if that next construction job will come through; we the poor, working poor, and even now the middle class, the 99%, live in a world of uncertainty, if life was ever certain ever at all? We face this struggle and sometimes feel despair, never fully knowing or realizing that our neighbors often face the exact same mountain to climb.
This movie can change your perception about that though. Through the platonic relationship between the intellectual Reuben and the commoner Norma Rae, we see that we can offer a shoulder for our neighbors struggle and know we will receive in kind. We see how our voices can be united as one. The film, through its amazingly acted characters, remind us of our common threads. Life is not without irony it seems, as we are reminded of our common threads from workers at a textile mill.
Norma Rae is a wonderful film of class solidarity, and how if you lock arm and arm with your neighbor, stand tall and strong, wonderful things can happen.
Here is the trailer and that one pivotal scene