Directed By: Martin Ritt
Written By: Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch
Starring: Sally Field, Ron Leibman, Beau Bridges
If Norma Rae were strictly about its politics, it would have missed its mark. Politically, there are no shades of grey in Martin Ritt’s 1980 Best Picture contender, rather it approaches the idea of workers’ unions with total simplicity; unionisation good, non-unionisation bad. The trick is, Martin Ritt is able to have his cake and eat it too. The idea of unionisation is one which the director is evidently passionate about, and he makes his point with great drama and pathos. But if Norma Rae was all politics, it would eventually become an attempt at proselytization, and Martin Ritt is much too much of a humanist to get bogged down in any such agenda. What interests him is something far more rooted in empathy, and, consequentially, something far more interesting.
The human element of his story is Norma Rae herself (played by Sally Field), a young mother of two belonging to a small Southern Baptist community. When we first meet Norma she is evidently sharper than she has any right to be. She is fierce, a true diamond-in-the-rough type. Yet she drinks, probably too much, and at night she slinks off to a cheap motel for vacuous sex. After one such rendezvous, she is beaten for suggesting that she and her married counterpart rightfully cool it. But Norma also has an in-built motherliness, a warmth and integrity that Field carries in her stride, veiling it though she does with vulnerability and anger. Norma is battle calloused, but not yet battle weary; her humble Southern town hardly the arena required to house someone as truly radiant as she is.
She has power and influence, and she only discovers the significance of her voice when a New York union organiser comes to town named Reuben Warshowsky (a charismatic Ron Leibman.) Reuben is but one of a long line of union organisers destined to fail in bringing the community’s centre piece textile factory to justice. The factory is where most everyone finds employment, including Norma and her family, because it is the only place where one can find such. It’s a cacophonous labyrinth of machinery and misery which Ritt explores with strings of long, seldom blinking tracking shots, battering the senses. The factory is only a few whips away from an 18th century plantation, as its workers operate on a minimum wage and brutalising regiments, regiments which only Norma is willing to articulate the slavishness of; her mother has grown deaf and her father will surely be killed by the impossible workloads.
“You’re the fish I wanted to hook” Reuben tells Norma. He knows if he is to get a union off the ground and succeed where so many have inevitably failed, Norma is his foot in the door, his voice from inside the factory who can continue to preach his sermons of fairness in the workplace.
It’s in Norma finding her voice that Ritt finds his. Norma Rae is a character study, the detailing of a woman who comes to embody the power of the human voice; a woman who requires adversity to unearth her value, discovering a maternal integrity and soldier’s doggedness as she rebels against the all too powerful factory owners who seem to own the entire town. Norma’s rise to proletarian, blue collar heroine features examples of fortitude which are not only uplifting, but are downright exhilarating, with Ritt’s trademark attention to the smaller human moments within broader political contexts bringing an added weightiness to Norma’s plight.
As the director did with Sounder, Ritt finds a humanism and truth in his stories that allows them to escape the sentimentality apparently woven into their fabric. Norma’s evolution, in which she grows into a figure as clear as clean glass in her virtue, could so easily may have been stained by schmaltz. But so impassioned is Field, so entrenched in his character’s worldview is Ritt, that Norma never has to be coy or cute in order to elicit sympathy. Norma Rae instead works in between the lines, getting under our skin and keeping its feet firmly grounded. What makes Norma such a compelling heroine is that she’s real. One need only look at the film’s pivotal moment, in which our eponymous character stands atop a work bench in silent protest, a sign reading “union” hoisted above her head, to realise how understated yet full of pathos the film is. A simple, noiseless gesture becomes something transcending, finally silencing that tireless cacophony.