Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Norma Rae

Norma Rae (1979, dir. Martin Ritt) dramatizes the struggle of North Carolina mill workers to unionize. The film is effective at portraying the workers themselves. Most of them do not look like Hollywood extras, but more like the sort of folk you would expect to work in a textile mill. The exception, of course, is Norma Rae (Sally Field), who is strong-minded, rebellious, and independent and doesn't like being put upon or seeing her relatives and friends exploited. She also doesn't mind upsetting the conventions of the local community.

In the film, a union organizer from New York City. Reuben (Ron Leibman) arrives in town to try to interest mill workers in forming a union. At first he is treated with disdain and suspicion, and sometimes hostility. The development of his friendship with Norma Rae is nearly as interesting as the story of her efforts to convince the millworkers to listen to him and to support unionization. In a muted but sustained way, the cultural contrasts between Norma Rae and Reuben give this movie life and interest. Their friendship endangers her marriage, and she admits to her husband one evening that Reuben is "in my mind," but it never develops beyond that point. This is a point of strength in the film, which develops the tension of a growing potential attraction between the two characters without resorting to the Hollywood ending that audiences might want or expect—there is no affair, and Norma Rae and Reuben part when the film ends.

Through this contrast in cultures, the film suggests both that beyond and above the differences there are fundamental shared concerns that unite people from fundamentally different places. Yet it also suggests that those differences are great enough to prevent the rapprochement with which the film tantalizes us throughout. One of the connections between Norma Rae and Reuben is their insistence on pursuing causes that no one else believes they can accomplish. Against strong odds, Reuben wants to unionize the mill, even when his supervisors urge him to consider giving up (they disapprove of Norma Rae too—they know she is married and are suspicious of her relationship with Reuben).

Norma Rae dramatizes the difficulties a woman would experience when she moves outside the traditional modes of behavior expected for her time and place. Norma Rae's husband (Beau Bridges), who in general the film treats as a good man, is increasingly bothered by her involvement in union work and her friendship with Reuben. The factory bosses at first promote her in an effort to get her on their side, but when she is placed in the position of having to evaluate the work of her former friends, even of her own father, she demands to be returned to her former position.

Despite its attempts at realism, the film is not resistant to the stereotypical lures of the small southern town idyll. Reuben himself is attracted to that idyll, even though the town itself is not especially receptive to him—he manages to achieve unionization only through Norma Rae and her efforts. In one scene he and Norma Rae swim together nude in a creek. This is supposed to be what the small rural town offers, the idyllic immersion in nature, Edenic innocence, yet at the same time the scene titillates, gives the audience some small gratification through the possibility of a connection between Norma Rae and Reuben that never occurs.

Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch collaborated on the screenplay for this film. They produced several other screenplays for films about the South, in particular The Long Hot Summer (1958) and the execrable The Sound and the Fury (1959)—Martin Ritt directed these films as well. The Long Hot Summer is at least watchable, though it gives us Faulkner as filtered through the minds of writers who understand Tennessee Williams better than the writer from Oxford. In Norma Rae, Frank and Ravetch are less prone to invoke melodrama and stereotype. They labor admirably to tell a story loosely based on fact and clearly connected to the unionization of Southern textile mills in the 1970s. The historical focus of this film—grounded in Southern patriarchy and sexism, class conflict, the ever-present struggle between management and labor, and the deeply entrenched Southern antipathy to labor unions and to outsiders—that staves off melodrama and stereotype.

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