Review: Norma Rae (1979)


I was once in a union, they did nothing but take my money and let me be railroaded!

Written By: Harriet Frank Jr. & Irving Ravetch
Directed By: Martin Ritt

While watching Norma Rae I was struck by how similar it was to a much more recent film, Erin Brockovich. The same strengths, the same style, the same ideas, Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich may be twenty years removed from one another but they could double as the same movie. The more I thought about it the more I realized that both movies are so similar because of their biggest weakness, they are incredibly general. There is a decided lack of detail in both films, the desire is to present general ideas and let one character run roughshod over all the others. I wanted to see the world of Norma Rae expanded more, realize what makes these characters tick beyond the obvious, especially in the case of Norma. What really drives her, what is the interaction with her husband and children really like during this time? Alas, Norma Rae had no time for details, instead we are told that Norma wants a union because she wants a union and that things are smoky with her family in one scene and then fine the next when her husband declares he will be there for her.

This format does allow for Sally Field to run wild with Norma. The world around her may not be fully realized, nor are her motivations, but as she moves from scene to scene Field brings Norma fully to life. Norma becomes a character we believe in, we want to know the details about her because what Field is giving us on the surface is so interesting and captivating. I believe that Field won awards for her portrayal of Norma, and if that is the case they were well deserved. Norma Rae is a film full of window dressing, but Field takes center stage and propels the film to a level it didn’t have any right to see.

Norma Rae wants to be high drama and I suppose the performance by Field elevates it to high drama. But, it is a very general movie that only works on the surface and is lacking the detail necessary to truly be the type of film it strives to be. Sally Field is worth seeing, and honestly Norma Rae is easy to recommend or not recommend. If you have already seen Erin Brockovich and liked it, then Norma Rae will appeal to you. But, if Erin Brockovich left you cold then expect more of the same from Norma Rae, the key word being same.




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