“Forget it! I’m stayin’ right where I am. It’s gonna take you and the police department and the fire department and the National Guard to get me outta here!” Those are words shouted by the defiant Norma Rae, and she follows it by scribbling the words “Union” and getting on top of her work station so every worker in the textile mill can see it. It’s a moment in cinema that still gives me the biggest rush when I watch it. In my opinion “Norma Rae” (1979) possesses one of the greatest performances in cinema – that of Sally Field. What is remarkable about this sequence is that you understand that Norma Rae has summoned some inner strength that she wasn’t aware she had in her, and it has caught her by surprise. How can unremarkable me be this powerful? We all need to channel our inner Norma Rae. Earlier in the film she tosses the line “One of these days I’m going to get myself together,” and does she ever. Simultaneously, we watch the actress go through a similar evolution – or maybe it’s us being caught by surprise – or all of the above. It’s powerful stuff.
“Norma Rae” was based on Crystal Lee Sutton who was fired from her job at JP Stevens plant in North Carolina in 1973 for insubordination after she copied an anti-union letter posted on the bulletin board. This incident took place during one of the ugliest episodes in labor history in the United States during which the company harassed and fired union activists. “Norma Rae” is directed by Martin Ritt who was himself caught up in the Red Scare and was known for his socially conscious films like “Hud” (1963), “The Great White Hope” (1970), “Sounder” (1972), and “Cross Creek” (1983), whose recurring themes include corruption, racism, coercion of the individual, and the protection of people from harm – even at the cost of sacrificing your reputation, career or life. His works are sensitively observed and are not preachy.
During the opening credits, Norma Rae’s background is established. Ritt lets the lyrics of the song, shots of the mill factory and photos of Norma Rae as a child tell you swiftly what you need to know. (“Bless the child of the workin’ man / She knows too soon who she is.”) The cotton mill has taken a toll on the health of her mother (going deaf) and her father (heart condition). She’s a single mother who’s developed a reputation in town for having affairs with other men. She’s made complaints to her supervisors about the conditions at work – and to quiet her down they give her a promotion to “spot checker” which causes a rift with her co-workers. New York union organizer Reuben Warshowsky comes to town and sees the potential in Norma – and after delivering a rousing speech at her church, he convinces her to join the cause. “What do you think of me I wonder?” she asks him. “I think you’re too smart to what’s happening to you.”
Sonny Webster also comes into her life. He’s a single father who treats her with respect. After a brief courtship they get married. At their wedding he tells the officiant, “I just hope I can keep up with her.”
The film is shot realistically, and builds momentum as Norma Rae starts to empower herself. It’s such an intelligent and sincere performance. Field sheds all mannerisms and quirks to fully embody Norma Rae. There’s one scene that takes my breath away every time I see it. It’s a quiet moment – full of such honesty. It takes place after she’s released from jail and goes immediately home and wakes up her young children – and gives them a talk in the living room. “I’m a jailbird. You’re going to hear that and a lot of other things, but you’re going to hear it from me first…I’m not perfect. I made mistakes. I want your lives better for you than it is for me. That’s why I joined up with the union and that’s why I got fired for it. I believe in standing for what I believe is right.”
The film which was nominated for the Oscar was co-produced by local resident Tamara Asseyev. The second time in history that a woman was nominated for Best Picture. The ending is worth noting. As Norma Rae says goodbye to Reuben there’s no Hollywood hug nor kiss – instead she extends her hand and they shake. They’re equals.
Reverend Hubbard: “We’re gonna miss your voice in the choir, Norma.”
Norma Rae: “You’re gonna hear it raised up someplace else.”
Available to stream on Hulu
Written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.
Directed by Martin Ritt
Starring: Sally Field, Ron Leibman, Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley.
Director Martin Ritt on Bringing “Norma Rae” to the Screen
“I never wanted to make a film about unions again after the demise of ‘The Molly Maguires’ , a film that I loved. They say people won’t buy films about unions. The box office failure of ‘FIST’ last year also seemed to indicate that. But then I read about this woman who worked in a mill and got involved in an organizing effort, and I thought, what a classy broad this is! “It’s as simple as that: I wanted to tell her story. And ‘Norma Rae’ is essentially more her story than a so-called union picture. She’s a working girl, 31, slightly round-heeled, ripe for change in her life if only she could see the way to change it. The union organizer from New York turns up and suggests some changes. There was some pressure to rewrite the script to allow her to have a love affair with the organizer, but no – that wouldn’t have been right. She gets involved because of her character, not because of her sex life.”…when Ritt originally suggested Field for “Norma Rae,” he says, the studio had its doubts. “They resisted her at first. They didn’t want to take a chance with a girl who’d been around and not made it. She’d never really had a chance at a role like ‘Norma Rae.’ But I guessed she’d be good. A guess was actually what it was…I had a feeling. The moment I met her, I had the feeling she was exactly the admirable lady I was looking for. I knew after the first week of shooting that she’d be terrific, and so did the studio. And this movie will change her life.” (rogerebert.com)
Filming “Norma Rae”
Ritt shot the movie on location in Alabama, in a union mill. And he came back, he said, still depressed over the limited opportunities for people in mill towns. “Kids can’t wait to get out of high school, or drop out, because they’re not learning anything meaningful. And then they go to work in the mills, and they’re old at 30, all used up. What do they do for entertainment? Sex and getting drunk. And how do you get out of a situation like that? What if you can’t throw a football, or you’re not 6-8 and a basketball star? How do you beat the rap?” What he likes best about his movie, he said, was the way the union organizer (Ron Liebman) acts as a catalyst for Norma Rae, and the way she then communicates her feelings to the mill workers. “These people aren’t dumb, but they’re worn down by the working conditions, they’re strung along by the paycheck, they’re misinformed…just plain information can change their minds.” (rogerebert.com)
The Real-Life Norma Rae
“Crystal Lee Sutton, the union organizer whose real-life stand on her worktable at a textile factory in North Carolina in 1973 was the inspiration for the Academy Award-winning movie “Norma Rae”… Ms. Sutton (then Crystal Lee Jordan) was a 33-year-old mother of three earning $2.65 an hour folding towels at the J. P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., when she took her stand. Low pay and poor working conditions had impelled her to take a leading role in efforts to unionize the plant. She was met with threats, she said. “Management and others treated me as if I had leprosy,” she later said in an interview for Alamance Community College, in Graham, N.C., which she attended in the 1980s. After months trying to organize co-workers, Ms. Sutton was fired. When the police, summoned by the management, came to take her away, she made one last act of defiance. “I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word ‘union’ on it in big letters, got up on my worktable, and slowly turned it around,” she said in the interview. “The workers started cutting their machines off and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet.” Within a year, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union had won the right to represent 3,000 employees at seven plants in Roanoke Rapids, including J. P. Stevens, which was then the second-largest textile manufacturer in the country.
In 1977, a court ordered that Ms. Sutton be rehired and receive back wages. She returned to work for two days, then quit and went to work as an organizer for the union. For legal reasons, Ms. Sutton’s name was not used in the 1979 movie “Norma Rae,” for which Sally Field won the Oscar for best actress, a Golden Globe and the best-actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, all in 1980. Bruce Raynor, who is now president of Workers United and executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, worked with Ms. Sutton in her organizing career…he said, “The fact that Crystal was a woman in the ’70s, leading a struggle of thousands of other textile workers against very powerful, virulently anti-union mill companies, inspired a whole generation of people — of women workers, workers of color and white workers.” Crystal Lee Pulley was born in Roanoke Rapids on Dec. 31, 1940, a daughter of Albert and Odell Blythe Pulley. Both her parents worked in the mills and, starting in her late teens, so did she. Ms. Sutton’s first marriage, to Larry Jordan Jr., ended in divorce. Besides her son Jay, she is survived by her husband of 32 years, Lewis Sutton Jr.; two daughters, Elizabeth Watts and Renee Jordan; two other sons, Mark Jordan and Eric Sutton; two sisters, Geraldine Greeson and Syretha Medlin; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. After more than a decade as a union organizer, Ms. Sutton earned certification as a nursing assistant from Alamance Community College in 1988. In later years, she ran a day care center in her home. Jay Jordan said his mother kept a photograph of Ms. Field, in the climactic scene from “Norma Rae,” on her living room wall. (nytimes.com)
About Director Martin Ritt
“Martin Ritt was born to immigrant parents in Manhattan on March 2, 1914. He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and Elon College in North Carolina, where he was a running guard and a boxer. He began studying law at St. John’s University, but he met and befriended Elia Kazan and joined him in New York’s Group Theater, where he acted in “Golden Boy” and other socially conscious Depression-era plays. He served in the Air Force in World War II, appearing in the service’s stage and film drama “Winged Victory.” After the war, he acted in live television plays but increasingly stressed directing. He was then blacklisted for five years and eked out a living by teaching at the Actors Studio. He began film directing in 1957 with “Edge of the City,” a powerfully realistic waterfront drama with racial overtones and starring John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier…Mr. Ritt directed and occasionally co-produced 25 diverse films, including “Edge of the City,” “The Long Hot Summer,” “Hud,” “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” “Sounder,” “Pete ‘n’ Tillie,” “Norma Rae,” “Murphy’s Romance,” “Nuts” and “Stanley and Iris.” Most of his films were quietly moving studies of human relationships, punctuated by periodic hits that gave the husky, tough-minded director freedom to deal with social issues and the alienation of outsiders. ‘The Human Condition’
“I make the kind of films that not too many people get to make in this town, though sometimes I’ve had to take the risk myself,” he said in 1986. To make both “Sounder,” a 1972 tale of black sharecroppers during the Depression, and “Norma Rae,” a 1979 story about a struggle to unionize a cotton mill in the South, he said, he and most of the principals worked for far less than their normal salaries, in exchange for a percentage of any profits, which were ultimately considerable. An Unobtrusive Hand, Mr. Ritt directed his camera the way he directed actors, with restraint, favoring a linear, sequential technique and eschewing flashy camera angles and shots and editing. “I don’t use the zoom unless that’s the only way I can get into a scene,” he once said. “The audience shouldn’t be aware of the director’s work until the movie’s over.” (The New York Times)