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Review: Norma Rae (1979)

Norma Rae (1979)

Directed by: Martin Ritt

Premise: The true story of a textile worker (Sally Field) who unionized her workplace despite challenges to her job and wellbeing.

What Works: Films set in the workplace are tricky, especially when they are done dramatically. Because Hollywood is generally a dream factory, making fantasies on celluloid, many films set in work places tend to miss the actual work and often result in long scenes of people standing around the water cooler or cast their characters in glamorous careers. Norma Rae is distinguished in that it is one of the few times Hollywood has portrayed blue collar workers and not fallen into the tendency to either condescend to the working class or to pander to them. Instead, the film sets itself in the work place and designs its story around the challenges unique to it. This is embodied best by Sally Field, who gives a terrific performance as Norma Rae. There is an authenticity in her performance in her colloquial accent, her regard for her coworkers and family members, and her overall posture that largely carries the rest of the film. The workplace of Norma Rae is also brought to life through the cinematography. The film is very well shot, using handheld camera work to weave through the machinery of the factory floor and capturing the heat and dirt of the workplace. The story of Norma Rae is further distinguished in the way it likens the title character’s efforts to organize her fellow laborers not only to economic issues but also to issues of social class, gender, and race. As the textile employees come closer to unionization they are forced to confront the prejudices and flaws in themselves  and each other and the film effectively dramatizes the way in which the struggle for worker’s rights uplifts and exposes these other issues simmering below the surface.

What Doesn’t: The film is unsparing in its portrayal of the administration of the textile plant.  While their cruelty and heartlessness makes them an effective adversary, the film might have benefited from a deeper portrayal of the management’s side of the issue. Even if the antagonists were only motivated by money, it would at least have better defined the conflict between them and the workforce.

DVD extras: Featurette, trailer.

Bottom Line: Norma Rae is a film as timely and effective now as when it was made. Sally Field’s performance and the skilful filmmaking hold up well and it is worth viewing by those interested in the history of the labor movement or those just in the mood for an inspirational story.

Episode: #329 (March 6, 2011)