Southern Movie 16: “Norma Rae”

The bleak but endearing 1979 film Norma Rae tells the story of a 31-year-old woman in a small town who sacrifices nearly everything to unionize the textile mill where generations of them have worked. Though the story is based on real events in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, Norma Rae was filmed in the Auburn-Opelika area of eastern Alabama. Watching this film makes us understand the catch-22 circumstances of life in a Southern mill town, where working-class poverty, with all of its attendant ills, is one of the only constants.

Norma Rae opens with a very 1970s-singer-songwriter introduction during the credits, then the first thing we hear is the roar of the machinery. After the sentimental acoustic music of the first few moments, the shift is jarring. We first see Norma Rae among a cast of mill workers, both white and black, both male and female, both young and old. They are working, very hard, among this severe noise. After we get this imagistic overview of these characters’ life, we are led to a small room where a few of the workers are on their lunch breaks. Norma Rae is eating a sandwich and talking to her friend, a slim, pretty blonde named Bonnie Mae, when she segues the conversation to her aging mother, who is standing on her other side. But the old woman doesn’t answer— the machinery has given her temporary deafness, again. Norma Rae takes her to the mill’s doctor, who nonchalantly and callously offers a note to take off work, but Norma Rae objects: that will only help until it happens next time!

The film then shifts to Norma Rae’s home life. She lives with her parents, and her two small children. As her mother re-pots plants in the side yard, Norma Rae talks with her father, Vernon (Pat Hingle), a bulky man who wears overalls through the whole movie. During these scenes, both in the mill and after they get home, Norma Rae shows herself to be a feisty firebrand, who speaks her mind and who stands up for what is right. And that will come in handy: while the father and daughter talk, a man comes to the door, looking for a motel room to rent. Their lives are about to change.

The man, Reuben (Ron Leibman), is a union organizer for the Textile Workers Union of America, a New York Jew who has comes to the small Southern town, and who has already been warned by local law enforcement not to stick around. Though he is treated with equal degrees of unkindness by Vernon, Reuben makes it clear that he isn’t going anywhere.

Reuben and Norma Rae meet again in a local motel lobby, where Norma Rae has come to meet an older, married man who is using her for sex. After their interlude, as Norma Rae is getting dressed, she tells her lover that this will be the last time they will. The angry man hits Norma Rae during a barrage of insults, and as she is leaving their room with a bloody nose, Reuben comes to her rescue. His motel door at the Golden Cherry stays open all the time.

As Reuben begins to do his union-organizer thing, standing outside the mill and handing out pamphlets, Norma Rae is among the only ones to speak to him, though the two begin their relationship with a friendly antagonism. Each appears to pity the other, viewing the hopelessness of their respective situations with both humor and resolution. As the organizer’s message collides with the obvious iniquities in the mill, Norma Rae is soon on Reuben’s side . . . which puts her at odds with most of the town.

Through sadly sympathetic scenes, like the one in the motel with her married lover, we surmise that Norma Rae is “easy,” and that character trait has gotten her into an unenviable situation. At a softball game, she runs into her younger child’s father, a man who had sex with her in the back of his car and never did support their subsequent offspring. (Norma was married to the older child’s father, but he has died.) Then comes Sonny (Beau Bridges), another ne’er-do-well, though this one will be one of Norma Rae’s two solaces.

Sonny may be a classic fuck-up whose freak-out at the mill gets him fired, but he is also a good guy. Sonny is all smiles and, after a recent divorce, has a daughter of his own to raise. Within a short span of time, he marries Norma Rae and reluctantly accepts her unionizing ways! Despite his discomfort with having black men in his home – this is the late 1970s in North Carolina, after all – Sonny relents to Norma Rae’s efforts, and even attends the biracial union meeting held in his living room, where a few of the characters confess to the hardships.

Once the players in this drama are all in place, the tension swirls around a classically Southern scenario that mixes the communist suspicions of a fearful working-class, the tenuous leadership of a woman in a Southern small town, the cruelty of the working conditions, and the sexual tension between a Southern woman and Jewish union organizer. The film portrays the way that mill owners could promote troublesome employees to supervisory positions, in order to turn their co-workers against them, and the way that bulletin boards were the communication method of choice (in the pre-Internet days).

In perhaps the most famous scene in the movie, Norma Rae gets fired from her job. She has been asked by management to stop copying down a memo on the bulletin board, which she plans to give to Reuben so he can file a lawsuit. After being escorted around the mill by a throng of men in short-sleeve shirts and ties, Norma Rae tried to go back to work but is disallowed. In response, the tiny woman stands on a table and holds up a quickly made sign, marker on cardboard, that reads simply: Union! One by one, the workers cut off their machines, until the room goes silent – that roar of machinery eerily gone – and Norma Rae is escorted out . . . to a waiting police car.

As Reuben’s and Norma Rae’s efforts move toward a culminating vote in the mill, they are confronted by mill owners and their supervisor-thugs, by union officials who have gotten wind of Norma Rae’s reputation, and by workers who are skeptical about what a union might mean for them. (In a particularly cruel twist, Norma Rae’s skeptical father Vernon has a heart attack on the job, and dies.) Yet, when the crowd is amassed on the factory floor, all sweat and nerves, with Reuben and the now-fired Norma Rae standing outside, the final tally is made: 427 for and 373 against! Cheers erupt, Union! Union! Union!

After the vote, Reuben says a few sheepish goodbyes to Norma Rae and gets into his loaded-down baby-blue Pinto to leave. What will become of Norma Rae and Sonny and the newly unionized mill . . . we don’t know. The credits roll, and that’s all we get.

Norma Rae is based on a true story of a woman named Crystal Lee Jordan, who worked in the mid-1970s to the unionize those North Carolina workers. According to an article from the Institute for Southern Studies, the real story goes something like this:

Sutton was only 17 when she began working at the J.P. Stevens plant in northeastern North Carolina, where conditions were poor and the pay was low. A Massachusetts-based company that for many years was listed on the Fortune 500, J.P. Stevens is now part of the WestPoint Home conglomerate.

In 1973, Sutton, by then a mother of three, was earning only $2.65 an hour. That same year, Eli Zivkovich, a former coal miner from West Virginia, came to Roanoke Rapids to organize the plant and began working with Sutton, who was fired after she copied a flyer posted by management warning that blacks would run the union. It was that incident which led Sutton to stand up with her “UNION” sign.

About her unionization efforts, The University of North Carolina’s “Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement” article on Sutton explains:

Sutton’s activism took many forms and connected struggles for unionization with the women’s movement. In 1974, she appeared in the pilot episode of PBS’ Woman Alive!, featuring Gloria Steinem and Lily Tomlin, and articulated the need for union representation to protect working women and promote gender equity. In 1980, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America (ACTWU) sent her on a speaking tour to promote the union’s boycott of J.P. Stevens’ products. As the “real Norma Rae,” Sutton travelled across the country and even to Canada and the Soviet Union in support of workers’ rights to organize for better wages, fair treatment, and safe working conditions.

A 1975 book, Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance, spawned the film incarnation, which then won a slew of awards, including Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Screenplay and a win for Sally Field n the Best Actress Category.

As a work that containing representations of Southern culture, Norma Rae does well. Sentimentalism is replaced by stark realism, characters are flawed and honest, and the provincialism of generational poverty is accurate. There are many people proclaiming a simple, dark truth: I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is. Sadly, that’s too common to Southern culture, where exploitation is rampant and where racial fears hamper the efforts of the working class to get together and improve conditions. A pre-Smokey and the Bandit Sally Field does an excellent job of getting these difficult facts over to a larger audience.

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