Monday, May 21, 2012

Norma Rae

Tonight at 8:00 sees the TCM premiere of Norma Rae, the first of two Oscar-winning performances for Sally Field. (In fact, Norma Rae kicks off another night of Field's movies, and is followed by second Oscar performance in Places in the Heart at 10:00 PM.

Based on a true story with some details changed, Field plays the titular Norma Rae. She's a single mother in a small town in Alabama that'd dominated by the local cotton mill. Conditions are lousy, to put it mildly, but nobody dares say boo partly out of fear of losing their jobs, and partly because they don't know better. That is, until Reuben (Ron Leibman) comes to town. Reuben is a New York City Jew who is also a union organizer. One of the national textile unions has learned of the horrible conditions at the mill, and unsurprisingly believes that unionizing the mill's workers will give them the power to address the terrible state of the mill. The workers are wary at first. Part of it is a general distrust of unions, but it doesn't help Reuben that he's a northerner and non-Christian, either.

Norma Rae doesn't have any more desire to take up Reuben's cause either; she's just trying to make it through life with her children by different fathers and new husband Sonny (Beau Bridges). All this changes when her father dies. Dad works in the mill too, and one day he asks for a break because he's feeling a terrible pain in his arm. The boss says no, but Dad gets a permanent break anyhow as the pain turns out to be a symptom of a massive heart attack that kills him. It's enough to change any child, I suppose.

Much of the rest of the story is a bit predictable, in that you know there's going to be tension between Norma Rae and Sonny as she spends long hours with Reuben working on the union organizing campaign. You also know that the campaign isn't going to be straightforward, and you can presume that the movie would never have been made if the campaign weren't ultimately successful. So, in a movie like this, it's just as much in the way the story is told as it is in the story itself. Here, the movie really shines.

I think it helps enormously that Norma Rae is presented as a fully human character complete with all her warts who hasn't been sanitized that much to make her look even more sympathetic. (Compare this to the real-life Erin Brockovich.) It also helps that some of the key sequences in the movie did, by all accounts, happen fairly close to the way they're presented in the movie. In particular, this means the scene of Norma Rae protesting by writing the word "Union" on a piece of cardboard, standing on top of her work station, and showing it to everybody in the mill. And when she gets arrested, she has to tell her children some uncomfortable truths. The fact that the characters aren't perfect also allows the film to have its obvious political beliefs without coming across as preachy, something that today's filmmakers could learn from. (To be fair, I think today's filmmakers are more concerned with adapting yet another comic book, with lots of special effects explosions.)

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