Norma Rae

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Norma Rae
Norma rae ver2.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Martin Ritt
Produced by Tamara Asseyev
Alex Rose
Written by Harriet Frank, Jr.
Irving Ravetch
Starring Sally Field
Beau Bridges
Ron Leibman
Music by David Shire
Cinematography John A. Alonzo
Edited by Sidney Levin
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date
  • March 2, 1979 (1979-03-02)[1]
Running time
110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $4.5 million[2]
Box office $22 million[3]

Norma Rae is a 1979 American drama film, directed by Martin Ritt in a screenplay written by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch. Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton,[4][5] which was told in the 1975 book Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann.[6] the film stars Sally Field in the titular role. Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman, Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley and Gail Strickland appear in supporting roles. The film's narrative follows a factory worker from a small town in North Carolina who becomes involved in the labor union activities at the textile factory where she works after the health of her and her co-workers is compromised.[7]

Norma Rae premiered at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d'Or, while Field received the Best Actress Prize. The film was released theatrically on March 2, 1979, and upon its release was a critical and commercial success with critics appreciating the film's direction, screenplay, message and performances (in particular of Field's), while the film grossed $22 million on a production budget of $4.5 million.

It received six Academy Award nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards including for Best Picture, and won two: Best Actress (Field) and Best Original Song for its theme song, "It Goes Like It Goes."[1] The film was selected for preservation at the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011, deemed as being "culturally, aesthetically or historically significant".


Norma Rae Wilson is a worker in a cotton mill that has taken too much of a toll on the health of her family for her to ignore their poor working conditions. She is also a single mother with two children by different fathers, one dead and the other negligent, and frequently has flings with other men to alleviate her loneliness and boredom. Initially, management tries to divert her frequent protests by promoting her to "spot checker," where she is responsible for making sure other workers are fulfilling work quotas. She reluctantly takes the job for the pay hike, but when fellow employees, including her own father, shun her for effectively being a "fink" to the bosses, she demands to be fired; instead, she is demoted back to the line.

Two men enter her life that change her perspective. A former co-worker, Sonny Webster, asks her out after earlier causing trouble for her at the mill. Divorced with a daughter, he proposes marriage after a short courtship; recognizing how long it has been since she met a non-selfish man to keep company with, she accepts his offer. And after a few charged encounters with a New York union organizer, Reuben Warshowsky, Norma Rae listens to him deliver a speech that spurs her to join the effort to unionize her shop. This causes conflict at home when Sonny observes she's not spending enough time in the home and is frequently exhausted when she is present. When her father drops dead at the mill, a death that could have been averted had he been allowed to leave his post early instead of wait for his allotted break, she is more determined to continue the fight.

Management retaliates against the organization efforts, first by rearranging shifts so that workers are doing more work at less pay, and then by posting fliers with racial invective in the hope of dividing white and black workers and diluting the momentum. Warshowsky demands she copy down the racist flier word for word in order to use it as evidence for government sanctions against her mill. When she attempts to transcribe the flier, management attempts to stop her, then fire her on grounds of creating a disturbance, and call the police to remove her from the plant. While awaiting the sheriff, Norma Rae takes a piece of cardboard, writes the word "UNION" on it, stands on her work table, and slowly turns to show the sign around the room. One by one, the other workers stop their mill machines, and eventually, the entire room becomes silent. After all the machines have been switched off, Norma Rae is taken to jail but is freed by Reuben.

Upon returning home to her family, Norma decides to talk to her children and tell them the story of her life, their questionable parentage, and recent arrest, so that they are prepared for any smears that may come from those hoping to discredit her efforts. After a tense exchange with Reuben, Sonny asks her if they have been intimate; she says no, but acknowledges "he's in my head." Sonny, in turn, tells her there's no other woman in his head and he will always remain with her.

An election to unionize the factory takes place, with Norma and Reuben listening as best as possible from outside the mill as reporters and TV cameras observe the vote count. With a difference shy of 100 votes, the result is a victory for the union. Shortly after, Reuben says goodbye to Norma; despite his being smitten with her throughout the movie, they only shake hands because he knows she is married and loves her husband, and Reuben heads back to New York.


The story is based on Crystal Lee Sutton's life as a textile worker in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, where the battle for the workers' union took place against a J.P. Stevens Textiles mill. Her actual protest in the mill is the scene in the film where she writes the sign "UNION" and stands on her worktable until all machines are silent. Although Sutton was fired from her job, the mill was unionized, and she later went to work as an organizer for the textile union.[8]


Production notes[edit]

Norma Rae was filmed on location in Opelika, Alabama. The mill scenes were shot at the Opelika Manufacturing Corp., and the motel scenes were filmed at The Golden Cherry Motel.[9]

Awards and honors[edit]

The film Norma Rae won Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Sally Field) and Best Original Song (David Shire and Norman Gimbel for "It Goes Like It Goes"). It was also nominated for Best Picture and for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was also nominated to the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and Field was awarded Best Actress, in Cannes, for her performance.

In 2011, Norma Rae was selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[10]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Home media releases[edit]

Norma Rae was released on VHS in December 1996, on DVD in December 2006, and Blu-ray in April 2014.

Musical Adaptation[edit]

In December 2017, it was announced that Norma Rae is being adapted into a stage musical. Rosanne Cash is set to compose the score.[14]


  1. ^ a b See film's entry at
  2. ^ Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p259
  3. ^ "Norma Rae, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved June 6, 2013. 
  4. ^ Obituary New York Times, September 15, 2009.
  5. ^ Obituary Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2009.
  6. ^ Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance, Henry P. Leifermann, Macmillan (1975), ISBN 0-02-570220-3,
  7. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Norma Rae". Retrieved 2009-05-24. 
  8. ^ Eric Leif Davin, "Crystal Lee," In These Times, March 5–18, 1980, pp. 16-17.
  9. ^ Rhodes, Guy (April 23, 2009). "When Norma Rae came to town". Retrieved June 2, 2013. 
  10. ^ "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 29, 2011. 
  11. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-14. 
  12. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14. 
  13. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-14. 
  14. ^

External links[edit]