A Free Woman

Life doesn’t hold many nice surprises for Norma Rae Wilson. She was widowed at 21 and left to raise two children from different fathers by working in a sweatshop-like North Carolina cotton mill.

She finds her fun where she can, dating from the shallow, sometimes treacherous pool of the mill town, trading barbs with mill supervisors and batting away nosy intrusions into her social life. 

Things change when Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) rides into town. He’s a union organizer from New York City with his eye on the cotton mill. He points out the obvious to Norma Rae (Sally Field).

“You’re too smart for what’s happening to you.”

It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship and in due time Norma Rae directs her kvetching towards unionizing the mill.

In the late 1970s a small band of Hollywood stalwarts poured energy into this entertaining and engaging movie with an offbeat, female character, which focused on an issue that wasn’t likely to make it a commercial success. 

The original screenplay, written by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, who was instrumental in unionizing the cotton industry in North Carolina.

Director Martin Ritt, blacklisted during the McCarthy era, was attracted to social justice themes; Norma Rae, released in 1979 and available on DVD at Whitehorse Public Library, was one of his most successful films. 

Norma Rae takes place over an indeterminate amount of time, perhaps a couple of years. The struggle of going against the grain in a company town isn’t minimized, and Norma Rae’s life changes several times during the film.

For one, she marries Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), who balks at sharing his wife with her unionizing work, or with Reuben. 

An atmosphere of realism prevails; Norma Rae was filmed in Alabama, with local residents blending seamlessly with professional actors. Even the most dramatic scene, which forms the iconic image of Norma Rae, where she stands on a table in the mill and holds up a sign that says “Union”, compelling the workers to bring machines to a halt, feels true. 

The forthright friendship between Reuben and Norma Rae provides much of the momentum for the film, as they bury their mutual admiration in wisecracks and expand each other’s horizons. Ron Leibman is funny and passionate as Reuben; he speaks eloquently about solidarity but doesn’t know how to change a tire.

Sally Field had a lot to prove in her portrayal of Norma Rae. She acted in television beforehand, and was far from the first choice to play this complicated woman. Her own sweet victory echoed Norma Rae’s: Sally Field won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1980; three of the other nominees had turned the part down. 

In 2011 Norma Rae was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, which chooses 25 films a year that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.

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