For our mid-February screening, we watched and discussed Norma Rae (Martin Ritt, 1979), an American film about the struggle to establish a trade union during the late 1970s in a cotton mill factory situated in the American South. This film was chosen to coincide with the trade union dispute taking place in Britain’s universities over proposed reductions in university pensions. Although Sally Field won an Oscar for her performance as Norma Rae in 1980, it is fair to say that the film is not well-known, nor often revived. In her Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech, Sally Fields joked that Martin Ritt’s films had the ‘box-office potential of 75 cents, sometimes less’. Tellingly, Fields’s wry observation failed to raise any laughs from her Hollywood audience, the assembled producers, directors, writers and stars possibly aware that in such a gathering, films that fail to make money at the box office (however worthy) are no laughing matter.
Norma Rae revolves around the efforts of Reuben, a union labour organiser from New York (played very thoughtfully by Ron Leibman) to introduce trade union representation into the cotton mill where much of the narrative is set. His efforts meet with resistance from the mill’s senior management and a degree of apathy from the workers until the eponymous (and previously somewhat anonymous) Norma Rae takes it upon herself to fight for the establishment of a trade union in the workplace, a fight which is ultimately successful. This quest provides Norma with a new sense of purpose and direction in her life, but the film does not shy away from showing the personal cost to Norma of this struggle. At the conclusion of the narrative, she has lost her job and she has also spent time in jail.
The union labour organiser, to whom she has become emotionally and intellectually close, leaves for New York at the film’s close and the film implies that they are unlikely to ever meet up again. The ending, thus, creates mixed emotions. The formation of a union in the workplace, however belatedly, is clearly an event of social, political and economic significance (scenes such as those in Norma Rae celebrating the integration of a union into a factory are not commonplace in American cinema). The film’s final images of Norma, though, show her literally rooted to the spot as Reuben leaves, possibly implying that for her, events of the recent past may prove to be more exciting and fulfilling than what lies ahead. (The glimpse we have of other union officials in the film is not encouraging, either; the two men sent to persuade Reuben to remove Norma from the campaign appear more like gangsters than union representatives, and are very different from the genial and intellectual, Reuben).
The style of the film is episodic, with one scene following on logically from the previous sequence, evidence of a concern to create a measured portrait of a community which works and socialises together and lives side-by-side (almost) with each other. The form of the narrative might be described as realist, with care being taken that events within the story are plausibly motivated, emerging from a proposed connection between cause and effect. Realism has always been valued as a prestigious (if precarious and somewhat fluid) term, which potentially endorses our humanity and leaves us with an enhanced understanding of the workings of society, the economy and communities within a particular location and setting. Cultural commentator, Raymond Williams in The Long Revolution (1961) praised realist texts for their ‘focus on the present’, their concern with democratic processes and desire for ‘wider social representation’ which avoids ‘idealization or caricature’; their use of ‘observed detail’ and emphasis on ‘ordinary everyday reality’ as opposed to a focus on ‘heroic, romantic or legendary subjects’.[i] Norma Rae fulfils all of these criteria.
British film critic, Felix Barker in his review of Norma Rae, somewhat, downplayed the film’s focus on collective political matters by focusing on what one might term the ‘legendary’ quality of Norma Rae’s character. Claiming Norma as a ‘heavenly heroine!’ and the most ‘exciting, worthwhile woman to appear on the screen for years’, Barker went on to provide details of her character as gleaned from the narrative – ‘Age 31. Height 5ft 2in’ (these particular details emerging in the narrative when Norma is arrested by the sheriff and placed in the town’s jail). Barker concluded that Norma is ‘Sexually liberal’ and ‘an intensely giving person’ who is ‘only slightly soured by unhappy experiences’.[ii] This, arguably, constitutes Norma as a kind of ideal or positive person, able to relate to others in a confident manner and capable of rising above sad and traumatic events which might leave other people despondent and bitter.
New Yorker, Reuben recommends the works of poet Dylan Thomas to Norma because they deal, he claims, with matters of love, sex and death (Reuben, notably, does not provide any details of Thomas’s private life or early death: ‘Thomas died of drink’, concludes a biographer of the poet; the year was 1953 and the place of death, New York).[iii] Reuben reads a few lines from Thomas’s famous poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, emphasising the line, ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’.[iv] The presence of this line in the film can be read as a metaphor for political struggle, in this case, the establishment of the union. But the line also refers to an effort to fight against death. In the film, Norma’s caring and supportive father, Vernon (Pat Hingle) dies suddenly of a heart attack in the cotton mill during the narrative and the scene of his death is closely followed by one of his funeral, with the characters seemingly having little time to mourn his demise. Death comes to us all, however much we try to resist it, seems to be the ‘message’ of these scenes. Characters, subsequently, the film implies, should work for better living conditions in the here-and-now, rather than hoping for a reward in some kind of heavenly after-life.
As regards the film’s portrayal of love and sex, we witness the aftermath of Norma’s sexual encounter with a married man (James Luisi) in a motel. This encounter is depicted as quickly turning sour, with the man hitting Norma against the face, an unpleasant act which literally works towards pushing Norma into the company of Reuben, who is staying in the same motel. Subsequently, a kind of platonic love develops between Norma and Reuben, but midway through the narrative, Norma marries a divorced man, Sonny (Beau Bridges) after he makes a business-like proposal of marriage, based around the claim that they are both on their own with young children to bring up. The film illustrates (as, perhaps, Thomas’s poems do) that matters of love, desire and the approach of death are by no means straightforward or uncomplicated matters. During the last conversation between Norma and Reuben, she reveals that she has bought her own copy of Dylan Thomas’s poems.
Reading the contemporary British film reviews of Norma Rae available for consultation at the BFI library in London was an interesting and informative experience. Tom Milne in the Observer felt that the portrayal of the union organiser was ‘too-good-to-be-true’[v] and Edward Buscombe in Tribune expressed concern about ‘the nature of the knowledge’ being transmitted between the union organiser and the workforce in the film, arguing that ‘It’s not just politics but a whole culture which the workers are expected to ingest’. Buscombe also lamented that the film did not appear to entertain the possibility that Reuben ‘might actually learn something himself’[vi] from the workers and his experiences in the mill town. This is a perceptive observation, but, perhaps, plays down the extent to which Reuben acknowledges that Norma – as both an ordinary and extraordinary representative of the town – will be somebody whose dedication and bravery he will remember until the end of his days.
Norma’s husband complains that when Norma is jailed, she uses her one phone call to inform Reuben (and not him) of her plight. Reuben, however, points out that he was the person in a position to extricate Norma from her imprisonment, which he does. Sonny also complains that he misses the old Norma, the pre-politically conscious Norma, the Norma who did the shopping, washing, cooking and put the needs of her children and husband first. The film, in such respects, engages with issues of sexual politics as well as themes pertaining to the setting-up and establishment of a trade union in the workplace.
The film makes it clear that the formation of a union (even at this belated stage in history) is the beginning, rather than the end, of a story. Equally, we will never know what the rest of Norma’s life was like as Martin Ritt died in 1990, without ever making a Norma Rae 2 sequel which, perhaps, depicted Norma experiencing life in New York with her children in the company of Reuben. Sequels to beloved films sometimes make disappointing viewing experiences – Crocodile Dundee 2 comes to mind – but for those of us who watched the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Norma Rae one snowy February night in 2018, we will always recall the character with affection, longing and respect.
Nigel Mather on behalf of the ‘Lupino collective’ (Alaina, Ann-Marie and Maria).
My thanks to Alaina for her ‘Norma Rae-like’ efforts in arranging this screening.
[i] Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961), pp.274-289.
[ii] Felix Barker, ‘A heavenly heroine’, film review of Norma Rae, Evening News (16 August, 1979).
[iii] Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (New York: 1977), p.308.
[iv] Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934-1952 (London: J.M. Dent and sons, 1962 edition), p.116.
[v] Tom Milne, ‘Hearts and flowers’, film review of Norma Rae, the Observer (19 August 1979).
[vi] Edward Buscombe, ‘Grunwick with a happy ending’, film review of Norma Rae (24 August 1979).