The VHS case of Norma Rae, the 1979 film for which Sally Field won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Actress, caught my eye in the local Blockbuster more than once in high school. I often picked it up, turned it over, scanned the text on the back of the box—and always put it back on the shelf. The main attraction was that the photo of Field as Norma on the cover—clad in blue jeans and a maroon t-shirt, her dark hair loosely tucked behind her ears—looked so similar to photos of my mom in the ‘70s that I did a full double take the first time I saw it. My own mother used to have a shirt like the one Field wears, faded from a thousand rounds in the washing machine, one I knew not only from pictures but my own fuzzy memories of early childhood, the tactile memories of a small child clinging to a parent. The fact that the film involved textile mill workers only deepened the effect; my mother grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina—once a major textile production center—as the child and grandchild of Cone Mills employees.
But what most compelled me were the sweat stains on Field’s shirt. Granted, they were dainty ones, not huge wet ovals spreading down her shirt (as I, an unfortunately sweaty teen, often experienced), but still purposefully displayed by her arms-aloft pose. This seemed so bizarre, somehow transgressive—a beautiful Hollywood actress, in a mainstream film, with visibly damp underarms. I didn’t know enough about movies then to understand why this might have been possible in the late-‘70s, but it was unthinkable to me in the highly polished era of Armageddon and Titanic.
I never watched the film, though, always bypassing it for the cult or foreign sections or special interest documentaries. As a teenager in North Carolina, I wanted a movie to either transport me as far away as possible in time and space or to closely mimic my own emotional experience with portrayals of disaffected and/or horny adolescents. The world of Norma Rae was one both too familiar and too disconnected to be of interest.
If all had gone as planned, Norma Rae would have been released under its original working title, Crystal Lee, named for Crystal Lee Sutton, a real woman whose work with an out of state organizer to unionize mill workers at a J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina was depicted in a 1973 New York Times Magazine profile by Henry P. Leifermann.
In 1977, after Leifferman expanded his profile into Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance, Barbara Kopple, director of the documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., approached Sutton about making a film based on her story, promising Sutton the right to approve the script. But by that time, Sutton didn’t own her story any longer. Norma Rae’s producers had optioned the book that summer, and Sutton, unfamiliar with the contract negotiation process, had signed away the screen rights of her story for a dollar.
After North Carolina law required more explicit consent, Sutton’s lawyer pushed for script approval. Norma Rae’s producers refused; they were free to make the movie with or without her, and they had the financing to do so. Sutton refused to sign a release, Crystal Lee became Norma Rae, and the legal cover-your-ass language was added to the credit roll: “The events, characters and firms depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or firms is purely coincidental.”
The film, which I did of course eventually watch, stands up pretty well if your standards aren’t too high. It’s a well-executed version of a Hollywood message picture: a scrappy underdog prevails over oppressive forces in the name of justice. Sally Field is indeed fantastic in the role, though her southern accent has some regional slippage (but I’ll forgive it). More recent corrolaries might be Erin Brokovitch in 2000, also a showcase for an actress previously deemed too unserious for meaty dramatic roles, or On the Basis of Sex in 2018, with Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, defending her spot at Harvard Law School to the snowy-haired dean or protesting to a male attorney that female cops ought to be allowed to patrol New York City streets. Though these movies all have political themes, they are at heart biopics, more focused on the character development of the protagonist and a smooth veneer of feminism than insights into the true nature of solidarity or the messy work of building power. (9 to 5, with its bitingly satirical take on women’s struggles in the workplace, has more to say on those topics; incidentally, it was released in 1980, one year after Norma Rae.) A case in point example of this is Norma Rae’s final scene: the workers vote to unionize, but the action is background to the fact that Norma, fired from the mill but now liberated and enlightened, has purchased a volume of Dylan Thomas’ poetry. What will the victory mean for her former coworkers? How will she support her own family now that she’s out of work? No answer, just a long take of her looking wistful, but resolved, as Reuben Warshowsky, the labor organizer, drives away.
In a contemporary review in BFI’s Monthly Film Bulletin, critic Tom Milne damns the movie as “heart-warming,” with “no cliché unturned”—anathema to a true cineaste. In his one moment of praise, he observes: “[Director Martin] Ritt’s feeling for character, and his unfailing eye for settings, often give the film a doggy sort of charm when nothing of importance is happening: a child interrupting a union meeting by announcing that her brother has just wet the bed, old men whittling sticks on a porch and belittling the whole idea of unions with scornful good humor, Reuben and Norma Rae bathing nude in the old swimming hole after canvassing on a hot day but forgetting the erotic situation in an eager discussion of organizational problems.”
It’s these moments where I find a great deal of meaning in Norma Rae, those spaces between lines of sometimes corny dialogue (which resorts often to fish-out-of-water jokes about Reuben, played by Ron Leibman, being a Jew from New York City), those moments where the scene is permitted to wander a moment before rushing to the next beat, the influence of the independent filmmakers of the ‘70s leaking into the mainstream movies of the early ‘80s, privileging a more naturalistic style. It’s no coincidence that the film’s most famous moment features no dialogue: Norma, about to be dragged out of the plant for disobeying management, scrawls UNION on a piece of cardboard, leaps up on a table, and holds her makeshift sign aloft. One by one, her fellow workers turn off their clattering machines, and the percussion of the factory floor gradually goes quiet in solidarity. It’s a powerful moment, and it’s the silence that does all the work.
Most of all, I find value in the physical world of the film, which was shot on site at a working, unionized textile mill in Opelika, Alabama. Manufacturing continued during production; the lint dust and conversation-obliterating machine noise are authentic. I suspect the sweat is too: Alabama is already hot and the mills are hotter, and the characters’ shirts are often soaked through. In one of Norma Rae’s earliest scenes, she sniffs at her armpit, then changes shirts and splashes on perfume in preparation for a date. (My mother calls this technique a “whore’s bath.”) Her lover, a wealthier married man who meets her in a hotel room, derides her when she says she wants to break off their affair: “You come out of that factory, you wash under your armpits, you come on down here and spread your legs for a poke, and you’re dumping me?” Norma is classed by her sweat, by the way she drinks too much and pukes on the side of the road, by the unseemly loudness of the voice coming out of her small frame. So much of the movie is in Field’s body itself. In a scene where the cops drag her into a police car, she kicked and struggled so hard against the other actors that she broke one of their ribs.
My grandmother didn’t work on the mill floor; she did office work, clerical stuff. Her father worked in the slasher room, where huge machines tightened and sized the warp to prepare it for weaving, supporting a family of nine kids on his wages. I never asked her what it was like to grow up in a mill village, or what it was like to work for Cone, once the largest producer of denim in the world (for a time, the sole supplier to Levi’s), for 30 years. By the time I became interested, sitting in a college art history class 500 miles away, learning about the importance of the Cone sisters’ modern art collection and realizing this collection was funded by the profits of the very same Cone Mills, it was too late. My grandmother’s mind was already mostly lost to Alzheimer’s; her body would follow a few years later.
Once, though, I was home from college and noticed a VHS tape sitting by the television labeled Cone Mill Villages 1939. Someone must have given it to my mother; she doesn’t remember who. I powered up the seldom-used VCR and put in the tape, which featured silent news-reel style footage of Greensboro and the tracts of company housing that included Cone-sponsored schools, churches, and baseball fields. Meemaw, who had come to live with us, sat beside me on the couch. One shot held on the mill doors at closing time as they flung open and men in work clothes spilled out, spreading to the left and right of the camera. My grandmother pointed at the screen, more alert than I’d seen her in months, and said “There’s Daddy!” The men in the grainy footage looked indistinguishable to me. “That’s my daddy there,” she told me with urgency, though I knew she still perceived me as a total stranger. The image on the television switched to something else and her mind wandered again. That tape, along with the texture of life at the mill as captured in Norma Rae, are the closest I’ll get to understanding her experience.
Crystal Lee Sutton sued 20th Century-Fox after the movie was released, receiving a settlement of $52,000. When the producers purchased the rights to Leiferman’s book, the money only went to him. Sutton thought that she ought to be compensated in some way for an award-winning movie transparently based on her life, no matter what disclaimer ran in the credits.
The movie, though, does take many liberties with her story. Notably, the real life labor organizer who came to town was named Eli Zivkovich, a former coal miner in his 50s from West Virginia. The rewriting of this figure as a 30-something Jewish guy from New York City is pure Hollywood engineering, a device to heighten both the cultural differences and the sexual tension. Reuben reveals that he has a girlfriend back in the city, a Harvard-educated leftist lawyer, but he doesn’t sound very committed to her. Norma’s second marriage to a doofy mill worker named Sonny is strained by her organizing work—it doesn’t leave her time to cook dinner or clean the house—and Field and Leibman have a chemistry between them that feels like a surprise to both of their characters: In the aforementioned skinny dipping scene, Field swims around him in a circle like a shark while he laughs nervously. (In her memoir, Field says Ritt directed her to keep getting closer to Liebman in the water without telling the other actor, whose glimmer of panic may be real.) “Reuben, you got a skinny build,” she says to him, in what might be my favorite line reading of the movie, tossed-off but coy. Norma Rae’s sexuality is a threat, something hanging in the air that could derail their whole project. He’s been warned about her; she’s a loose woman with two children by different fathers, the first born in wedlock to a man who died shortly thereafter in a bar fight, the second to a relative stranger whose only involvement in Norma’s life is showing up to awkwardly say hello at a baseball game now and then. In the end, Norma patches things up with Sonny (played by Beau Bridges, who absurdly got second billing for the film despite having half the lines and half the personality of Leibman). She and Rueben never hook up, instead forming a strong emotional bond, but the possibility of their romance lends a charge to scenes that would otherwise be mostly people typing up and handing out pamphlets.
The biggest departure, of course, is the intense focus on the individual. The entire nature of Reuben’s project is to build collective power, but the members of the collective don’t get much air time other than a scene in which meeting attendees discuss their grievances with the mills: lack of accomodation for sickness or menstrual cramps, long hours standing, the only window removed, death by brown lung. Wages go unmentioned. Historian Robert Toplin, who interviewed other J.P. Stevens employees who worked with Sutton, found that some resented the media’s focus on Crystal Lee. She wasn’t the only important person in the movement—she just had the biggest personality. Easily quotable, she made a good subject for a magazine article.
Also more sellable was her status as a white woman, although by her own account, Crystal Lee Sutton was the only non-Black attendee out of 70 at her first union meeting. In 1970, Lucy Sledge had sued J.P. Stevens for discriminatory hiring practices in a class action suit representing several thousand other African American workers in Roanoke Rapids. The first of the J.P. Stevens mills to unionize was the one with the highest percentage of African American employees. Norma Rae does engage with race, dramatizing that first union meeting as predominantly Black, and portraying a moment of violence borne of management’s attempt to pit white workers against Black. But it otherwise glosses over the complexities of building an integrated labor movement in the rural south, the huge role played by African American activists who had already been fighting for their rights as citizens and as workers for decades, and the heightened threat of physical violence that Black organizers faced.
It is this gloss, of course, that allowed Norma Rae to be made at all. Pro-union mainstream movies were, and remain, a rarity; Hollywood is more apt to focus on stories of corruption among union leaders, with films like On the Waterfront and The Irishman, than empowering ones. Toplin credits three factors for the greenlighting of this anomalous film: the fact that its producers, Tamara Asseyev and Alex Rose (both women, another rarity), pitched the story as a feminist tale of personal empowerment and dowplayed the labor organizing part; the success of Rocky, which showed that gritty underdog pictures—even those with modest budgets—could attract an audience; and, in true follow the dollar form, the success of Star Wars, which meant 20th Century Fox was flush with cash and willing to take a few risks.
At the movie’s climax, Norma Rae tells her children, “If you go into the mill, I want life for you to be better than it is for me. That’s why I joined up with the union and why I got fired.” Milne, the Monthly Film Bulletin critic, dismisses this line as naive, but it seems like a pretty logical reason for joining a union. The real naivete is in the assumption that local mill jobs will be an option for future generations, that they won’t be faced with a choice between taking low wage service industry work or moving away for better educational or employment opportunities. In a post-industrial era, Greensboro has fared better than many smaller towns that were even more reliant on textiles; its largest employers are the local schools, universities, and health systems, along with city and county government. Opelika, meanwhile, still has some manufacturing jobs—auto parts and kidney dialyzers—but call centers and Wal-Mart number among its top employers.
Crystal Lee Sutton worked as a spokesperson for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union for several years, later as a nursing assistant, and then ran an in-home daycare. She died of brain cancer in 2009, at 68. Her insurance refused to cover her medication for two months after her diagnosis, allowing the cancer to spread. In an interview with her local newspaper, she described her battle with the privatized healthcare system as another example of the mistreatment of the working poor in America: “It is almost like, in a way, committing murder.” Sutton stayed on message to the end: her daughter-in-law reported that Harvard University had offered to house Sutton’s papers and artifacts in its archives; she left them to Alamance Community College instead.
In the opening images of Norma Rae, a great blue machine labeled Bale-O-Matic lifts sheets of fluffy white material, raw cotton tumbles through spinning gears, and thread spools across vast looms. The real Opelika mill employees, who served as extras for the film, go about their daily business of pushing carts and minding bobbins and shuttles. In his 1979 Washington Post review, Gary Arnold wrote that “the images of loose strands of fiber in the air seem more significant than the character of the heroine.” He didn’t mean this as a compliment, but I like to read it as one. The lint that caused brown lung looks beautiful drifting in the light. What the movie captures for me is a glimpse of a history I can’t experience, the feel and sound and sweat of it. The tide of workers rolls in the factory gates as first shift begins and rolls out again at closing time, and for a moment I feel like I know their names.