In preparation for a discussion I’m leading on films and capitalism, I decided to watch “Norma Rae.” The 1979 Best Picture nominee tells the tale of a North Carolina town that successfully unionizes against a steel mill company thanks to the partnership of a Jewish union organizer and an uneducated single mother.
To call this a passion project for star Sally Field and director Martin Ritt would be an understatement. Field, stuck in the dungeon of sitcom-land (things I learned in my research here: Sally Field once was quite a hottie as the surfer chick “Gidget”), had just gone to the Actor’s Studio and studied under Lee Strasberg and was starting to get attention for the made-for-TV film “Sybil.” After nearly every other actress turned down the part (including two of the actresses she would defeat in the Oscar race that year), Field jumped on the part as a chance to prove herself. Her director, Martin Ritt, had been black-listed in the 1950s and was devoted more than before to make films with something to say. Ritt found a kindred spirit in Field who first met him at an anti-nuclear rally. Field, in turn, would call working under Ritt the best acting experience of her life and collaborate with him twice more.
The film is also enhanced by DP John Alonzo's grainy photography and most of the film (particularly the factory scenes) were shot on a hand-held camera.
The film’s authenticity was enhanced through location shooting. While they weren’t able to film at the actual location of the strike in North Carolina, Alabama was trying to attract film productions at the time, which happened to be a serendipitous stroke as they settled on the small Alabama town of Opelika which had been dealing with its own labor issues at the time after the town had gone from a largely agricultural center to a primarily industrial base. While some extras came from nearby Auburn University, many of the factory workers appeared as background and Field said that in her climactic holding-up-the-sign scene (as shown above), that she could feel their energy and sorrow as she was walking to her arrest.
The film’s narrative is largely constrained to the events of real life but that doesn’t mean that real life was particularly disappointing in this case. The film teases out a romance between Norma and organizer Reuben but in real-life the age difference was too big for it to enter either of their minds. At least we’ll always have the skinny dipping. Norma instead is paired romantically with a good-natured guy (Sonny, Beau Bridges) who is …um, how shall I say this delicately without feeding into southern stereotypes… a simpleton who seems a little slow for a woman who’s suddenly reading books and might be the first person in town who can answer the trivia question “Do Jews have horns?”
Because that’s how they do in the South, apparently, the two get married one date into their courtship, and it’s genuinely unclear midway through the movie if Beau Bridges is her true love (although, really, why marry Beau when his brother is such a stud?) or simply a distraction en route to a certain loud-mouth Jewish Mr. Right. It’s a convincing enough misdirect that when their marriage is at a breaking point and Sonny makes the perfect gesture to let her know he’ll be by her side through thick and thin despite not particularly caring about unions, it’s the emotional high point of the movie. It’s not exactly George and Kelly Anne Conway levels of political division, but much of the movie’s conflict is about how the people at the top try to sow divisions at the bottom so it'll do.
The bad guys who run the factory try promoting Norma to give her a taste of power in hopes she’ll forget about the people she’s supposed to be helping and pretty much admit that this is their evil plan. Then they try sowing discontent among various groups along racial and socio-economic lines. Isn’t this pretty much what Karl Marx warned about?
I originally classified films that critique capitalism with the subgenres of films that might posit their villain as someone who perverts capitalism; films that attack an entire industry; or films that attack the institution of capitalism itself. The third category, which I believe is the most damning critique of capitalism, suggests that human nature devolves under the pursuit of money over material wealth.
There’s a lot to stylistically admire and Sally Field’s portrayal of Norma Rae (or rather the real-life activist Crystal Lee Sutton composited with approximately four other characters due to issues with Sutton not selling her life rights) is quite a firecracker of a performance. But as a film that explores the root of capitalistic evils (or just plain evil in general), “Norma Rae” is a film about the triumph of the human spirit, but it certainly flattens its villains. Why exactly are the factory foremen determined to not change with the times? The degree that their hostility is determined by historic inertia, religious prejudice (the Jewish union organizer is so loud about his religious affiliation, it’s not really clear whether he’s asking people to hate him for being Jewish and if that’s part of his baiting), or a desire to protect their wealth (that’s the root of capitalism) is pretty variable here. That would be worth answering but the general principles are worth exploring here.