I have many films that I love, but there are only a few I wish I had made. One of those films is Paper Moon. And then there are a few films where the pure craftsmanship brings me to the verge of tears. These films make me shake my head in admiration and disbelief at their excellence. Norma Rae is one of those.
I told someone that it was one of my favorite films, and she was surprised because the film has a female protagonist. That doesn’t matter to me at all; if the character is a human being truthfully portrayed that’s all I need. Race, gender, religion or any other circumstance of the character makes little difference. Is the story truthfully told? That’s what matters.
Norma Rae is truthfully told. Directed by Martin Ritt, written by Harriet Frank, Jr., and Irving Ravetch, it stars Sally Field—who plays the part flawlessly. She won an Academy Award, in fact.
The film was released in 1979, and Sally Field plays Norma Rae, a woman from a small southern town who struggles to organize a labor union in the textile factory where she works.
It doesn’t sound exciting, I know, but it is real human drama that is engaging and entertaining. It is not boring because it deals with “important” issues. In fact, one of the most beautiful things about the film is that Norma’s personal story is the story. The story is really about how she grows as a person. She learns that she has a value beyond her sexual relationships with men.
The storytellers understood that in order to make viewers care about the issues they would have to use drama to do it. What I mean when I say “drama” is that they knew to tell a human story full of emotion.
As I pointed out to someone recently, the Greeks, who invented the dramatic form we use, knew that it was based in emotion—not puzzles or philosophy. That’s why the symbol they (and we) use for drama are the masks of Comedy and Tragedy—not of someone thinking. The Greek are pretty well known for their philosophers, but it’s clear that they felt drama served another function.
Norma Rae uses emotion to make its point. It tells the story of a person standing up against a corrupt system and suffering the consequences. It challenges us to stand up against our personal Goliath even though we are small.
One of the very first things you see Norma Rae do in the film is an example of the beautiful craftsmanship. (Remember, the film is about her trying to get a union for her fellow workers.) Well, the film starts with Norma Rae helping someone.
I will often say that a film is focused, and this is what I mean. Nothing is random. This film knows what it’s about from the very beginning and stays on track.
Most of the filmcraft will be invisible to you, but I assure you it is a meticulously made film. They just hid most of the work so well that you can’t see it. But you can’t make a film like Norma Rae by accident.
I wish I had written this movie, but if I had written it in our current film climate it would more than likely be sent back by my agents because nothing blows up and there is no twist ending. And they would be right not to send it out because the studios don’t make films like this anymore. It’s a cryin’ shame.
Rent Norma Rae—you won’t regret it. But I have to warn you there’s no CGI.