— Norma Rae

Directed by Martin Ritt, Norma Rae came out in 1979 amid blockbusters such as Apocalypse Now and Alien.1 It was based on a book published in 1975 titled Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry Leifermann. The book was an expanded version of an article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine.2 The book was based on the life of Crystal Lee Sutton and her struggles to help unionize the J.P. Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.  The film was filmed in Opelika, Alabama at the Opelika Manufacturing Company.3 Sally Field was awarded her first Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1980 for her portrayal of Crystal Lee Sutton. A relative newcomer to more sophisticated roles, Fields beat out the likes of Bette Midler and Jane Fonda (who turned down the part) for the Best Actress Oscar.4 The film also won an Oscar for Best original song “It Goes Like it Goes” and won 7 other awards and 6 nominations.5

Norma Rae is set in the summer of 1978 and is about the struggles of textile mill laborers in a small, southern Baptist town and O.P. Henley & Co. Textile Mill. Norma Rae is a young widow and single mother stuck in a dead end, low paying job at the local textile mill. The mill being the only major means of employment, Norma Rae sees the negative effects of a life time’s work in the mill in the near deafness of her mother and the deteriorating health of her father. Frustrated with the working conditions and lack of opportunities Norma turns to the newly arrived outsider and well educated New York union organizer Reuben Warshowsky in the hopes of providing a better life for her family. Upon his arrival Reuben faces discrimination based on his Jewish heritage as well as being a Northern union agitator. Norma Rae sees Reuben as a way to better her life and that of her families and so works to convince her fellow mill workers to join the union. After unsuccessful attempts to convince her fellow workers, Reuben and Norma’s attempts seem to be going nowhere as the factory bosses begin circulating the more shameful aspects of Norma Rae’s life and instituting longer but fewer working days a week. The death of her father while he is working in the mill and the racial tensions between black union supports and the white bosses spur the union’s cause and culminates in the famous scene where Norma stands on the table in the middle of the factory and holds up a union sign. The workers finally act as one by shutting off their machines and making a statement along with Norma. The film ends with the Union winning support and representation in the mill.


Norma Rae- Sally Field

Sonny Webster-Beau Bridges

Reuben- Ron Leibman

Vernon- Pat Hingle

Leona- Barbara Baxley

Bonnie Mae- Gail Strickland

Wayne Billings- Morgan Paull

Sam Bolen- Robert Broyles6


Show 6 footnotes

  1. IMDb.com, “Most Popular Feature Films Released in 1979,” Imdb.com, Inc http://www.imdb.com/search/title?year=1979,1979&title_type=feature&sort=moviemeter,asc (accessed Nov. 11, 2012).
  2. Robert Brent Toplin, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 205.
  3. Ibd. 212
  4. Robert Brent Toplin, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 205.
  5.  IMDb.com, “Most Popular Feature Films Released in 1979,” Imdb.com, Inc http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079638/ (accessed Nov. 11, 2012).
  6.  Almance Community College and Crystal Lee Sutton, The Crystal Sutton Collection, http://www.crystalleesutton.com/movie.html, September 12, 2012.