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The Ongoing Relevance of “Norma Rae”

  • The other night, I found myself once again scrolling the multiple streaming services I subscribe to, and wondering, as I often do, which show or movie would allow me to relax my brain into a pleasing limpness. Should I pick the reality dating show about Indian singles looking to enter an arranged marriage with the help of an unflappable matchmaker? The documentary series about the face-off between federal agents and New York goodfellas in the seventies and eighties? The travel show in which a tetchy British comedian joins celebrities on jaunts to various international locales? All of these seemed solid options, if fairly mindless. Then I noticed that Martin Ritt’s 1979 drama, “Norma Rae,” which I hadn’t watched since high school, was on Hulu. Relaxing my brain, I decided, could wait for the night.

    For those who haven’t seen the movie, or whose memory of it is hazy, a recap: Norma Rae Webster—played by a ferocious Sally Field, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress for the role, in 1980—is a Southern single mom of two who works on the dim, noisy floor of the town textile mill, where her parents, and, likely, her grandparents, have worked before her. It’s a grim, precarious, and repetitive job, which makes for a grim, precarious, and repetitive existence. Early on in the movie, we see her attempt to rouse her mother, who has gone temporarily deaf from the incessant din of the mill’s machines. The plant doctor is unimpressed: “Now, you know it happens, Norma Rae. It happens all the time!,” he says, suggesting that the older woman “can get herself another job” if this one isn’t to her liking. But in their mill town there is no other job, and no real alternative to the low-paying and d

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