Remembering Norma Rae

Remembering Norma Rae

Why does Hollywood render unions and the working class invisible?


Editor’s Note: If they gave an Academy Award for the year’s best progressive film, who would the winner be? Cast your vote in The Nation poll.

Here are some words you are unlikely to hear in any of the movie clips shown during the Academy Awards this year:

Ladies and gentlemen, the textile industry, in which you are spending your lives and your substance…is the only industry in the whole length and breadth of these United States of America that is not unionized. Therefore, they are free to exploit you, to lie to you, to cheat you and to take away from you what is rightfully yours–your health, a decent wage, a fit place to work.

“Unionized” isn’t a word you hear in many American movies. “A decent wage,” now there’s a phrase that doesn’t crop up too often. As for the evocative “your lives and your substance,” poetic descriptions of the human condition aren’t generally found in contemporary entertainment.

This speech is from Martin Ritt’s classic 1979 film Norma Rae, delivered in an impassioned sermon by Ron Leibman in the role of an organizer for the Textile Workers Union of America, a real union at the time and a predecessor to the current trade union UNITE HERE. Norma Rae is an aberration in recent Hollywood history. The movie portrays a realistic union-organizing campaign and the fierce corporate response at the fictional O.P. Henley textile mill in the fictional town of Henleyville. As everyone knew at the time, the mill and the town were unambiguous stand-ins for J.P. Stevens and its sixteen-year war against union organizers in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and the movie accurately depicted the state of American labor in 1979.

The situation has not improved much since. The only remaining Stevens factory in the United States (owned by its successor company, Westpoint Home) is a unionized blanket mill in Maine. In other industries, union organizers are battling adversaries as unyielding as any in the days of Norma Rae. According to the labor advocacy group American Rights at Work, last year more than 23,000 Americans were fired or penalized for legal union activity.

On a human level, Norma Rae is the story of one woman, played by Sally Field, who finds redemption risking her life for economic justice, and of factory workers demanding to be treated as more than slaves. In the realm of the political, it is virtually the only American movie of the modern era to deal substantially with any of these subjects. Even today it remains iconic–a major studio movie about the lives of working people with a profound and, for its time, disturbing political message: The little guy may have a prayer of getting social justice, but he’ll have to fight desperately to get it. Try to think of a contemporary American film with a similar message or a political statement anywhere near that blunt. The closest thing to a message in this year’s crop of Oscar nominees for Best Picture can be found in Babel, which poses the rather mild question, Why can’t we all just get along?

European filmmakers, like England’s Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, don’t shy from the subject of class. Loach’s Bread and Roses dramatized the 1990 Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, and Leigh’s entire career is virtually a paean to the working class. This is not to say that American studios don’t make topical mainstream films. A kind of renaissance seemed to be blossoming in 2005, with material as varied as Good Night, and Good Luck and The Constant Gardener. But Blood Diamond–about the 1990s civil war in Sierra Leone partly sparked by international diamond speculators–was perhaps this season’s only major studio picture that could be called politically daring, and it was a box-office disappointment. In the end, of course, financially successful or not, such movies don’t fundamentally threaten the established order. They’re well-crafted stories delivering conventional wisdom with considerable artistic skill.

Norma Rae was different. Its subject matter, never mind its politics, was enough to make a studio executive cringe: a movie about a union. On top of that, it was a story of platonic love between a Jewish intellectual and a factory worker; in Hollywood love stories, the audience wants the heroes to end up in bed. Even with a trio of creative giants–Ritt and his writers, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.–this was no easy sell. Casting could have helped; stars get movies made. But several leading actresses, among them Jane Fonda and Jill Clayburgh, turned down the title role. Creative issues aside, there was the problem of location. Where would you shoot the movie? Because of J.P. Stevens’s influence, taking the production to most Southern towns would be impossible, and building your own textile mill, prohibitively costly. (With help from the union, Ritt found a unionized mill in Opelika, Alabama, where management agreed to let him shoot, with mill workers as extras playing themselves.) Finally, after overcoming all the odds, when released the movie was anything but an instant hit, and only after Sally Field won Best Actress at Cannes did it gradually go from dud to box-office success.

Since then, the entertainment community has kept its distance from the film. One indication of Hollywood’s indifference came six years later, at the 1985 Academy Awards, when Field accepted her Oscar as Best Actress for Places in the Heart. “You like me,” she said effusively, “right now, you like me.” The audience response was nervous laughter, as if Sally Field were so needy as to consider an Academy Award a sign that she was “liked.” This was, of course, not the case. Field had assumed, incorrectly, that most of her colleagues had seen her astonishing performance in Norma Rae. But in fact, many in the audience had no idea that she was referencing one of the picture’s most memorable pieces of dialogue–her character’s realization that her union organizer not merely respected her but liked her as a human being.

In the ensuing twenty years, the movie essentially disappeared. Otherwise movie-literate folks only vaguely remember Norma’s quest. Alas, they don’t know what they’re missing. With Leibman and Field, the movie has two of the toughest and most generous performances in the history of American film. The film’s language is simultaneously elegant and gritty. Of powerful moments, there is no end. When Norma commits herself to the organizing campaign, she asks the local minister to lend his church for a union meeting. “That’s blacks and whites sitting together,” Norma says. The minister, horrified, tells her, “We’re going to miss your voice in the choir, Norma.” She replies, “You’re going to hear it raised up somewhere else.”

In an unusual twist, the movie’s story played itself out in reality the year following its release. Sixteen years after a successful union election at the Roanoke Rapids mill, union members finally forced J.P. Stevens to the bargaining table. The film was a key factor in a nationwide boycott against Stevens–a campaign that became a model for coalitions of union supporters and union members. The Rev. David Dyson, who helped spearhead the Stevens boycott when he was on the union’s staff, recalls: “The movie came along at the two-year point in the boycott, which hadn’t picked up any steam. We found Crystal Lee Jordan [now Crystal Lee Sutton, the worker who inspired the Norma Rae character]…. We put on a tour, including a great event in Los Angeles with Sally Field and Crystal Lee. The lights would come up and there would be the real Norma Rae and people would leap to their feet.”

It’s nearly impossible to imagine a similar movie that would bring them to their feet today. Television, a broader medium, is different, with an audience more fractionated and therefore, theoretically, more open to content that some might label controversial. Not so long ago there was Roseanne, which addressed head-on the darkness of power and social class and the tribulations of working life. Last year’s Emmy winner The Office included a story line mocking a nasty anti-union campaign; the hugely popular Grey’s Anatomy followed a nurses’ strike with obvious sympathy for the nurses–even management, in the person of doctor George O’Malley, joined the picket line as the story revealed his upbringing in a pro-union home. One could argue that the brilliantly corrosive Rescue Me, about Denis Leary as a New York City firefighter and the personal lives of his colleagues, is a bold step into the interior world of the working class; but firefighters are unmistakably post-9/11 heroes. What’s ultimately most telling about these examples is how unusual they are, far from television’s norm, at a time when most Americans are losing economic ground. One new show this season, the polished and artful Brothers & Sisters, is about a wealthy family in Pasadena who own a business in which workers are nearly invisible; the primary stories involve the characters’ tortured love lives. Ironically, the family matriarch–albeit a liberal ACLU-ish matriarch–is played by none other than Sally Field.

It would be easy to blame the entertainment industry for the invisibility of working people fighting to better their lives. Ask writers in show business and they’ll say, “Nobody cares about seeing those people on a screen” and “If audiences wanted to see that, the studios would make it” and, finally, the answer to nearly every question about the current condition of American filmmaking, “The studios have a mega-hit mentality; they don’t want to make small pictures.” But maybe there’s another reason. Making Norma Rae in 1979 was hard enough; now it would probably be impossible. The country has changed. It’s more difficult to build a mass movement for social and economic change, to find large numbers of Americans who care about social solidarity. If popular entertainment is, by definition, mass entertainment, what happens when no mass exists, when an insufficient number of people occupy cultural common ground? In that case, for whom would you make Norma Rae?

“You live there, and you become one of them,” Sally Field said in a documentary issued with the DVD of Norma Rae, “and you try to stand at their machine and thread it and run it, and…you learn to appreciate how difficult their lives are, and chances are you’re never getting out.” Which, for the most part, is how things remain. The American labor movement is arguably in more trouble now than it was then. Where is the next movie that might hope to change the course of history?

Of movies about ideas and social justice, Sam Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” In other words, moviemakers are in the movie business, not the social change business. And so tomorrow we won’t go to the tenplex and find movies about Wal-Mart workers fighting for health and pension benefits, or turn on the television and find a working-class hero struggling to pay the electric bill. (Isn’t it odd that people on TV hardly ever seem to worry about gas prices?) If we are to find a Roseanne or a Norma Rae again in popular entertainment, if we are to make movies that can affect the course of history, we need to find something else first, something difficult to see on the horizon. We need to find a belief in an ideal disappearing not only from our movies but also from our lives–the notion that we do, in fact, share common ground, and that if we ignore the lives of the least fortunate in our society we may well be ignoring the future of our society itself.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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