I promised earlier in the week that I’d have more to say about the 1979 movie, Norma Rae. Norma Rae was a fictionalized version of a real event. JP Stevens worker Crystal Lee Sutton was fired from her job for her union organizing activities, but as she was being escorted from the factory she made one last dramatic stand for her union. She quickly made a sign from a piece of cardboard, reading “UNION.” As she stood on a table and slowly turned for all on the factory floor to see, one by one the other workers shut down their machines in solidarity with Crystal Lee. It took several more years, but eventually JP Stevens was unionized.
Anyone interested in the textile industry really ought to see this one, if for no other reason than to see the scenes inside the working mill. As hard as it is to believe, this was filmed inside an actual towel weaving factory, Opelika Manufacturing in Opelika, Alabama. I say hard to believe because why would any textile mill owner allow his property to be used in a film about the struggle to unionize? According to a story I found from a former employee of Opelika, quite a few mills had already turned the film producer down, and it was during a chance game of golf that he found Opelika.
Being filmed inside a working mill adds a real air of authenticity to the work. Unless you’ve ever been inside a weaving factory, you just cannot imagine how noisy or how dusty they can be. You can see a bit of it in the movie trailer:
Inside the factory, there were always little tufts of cotton floating in the air. Not only was this annoying, it was dangerous over the long run. Many textile workers, including one of my father’s sisters, died from a condition caused from breathing the fibers over years, brown lung disease.
But the movie also shows the good. Life in a cotton mill town is often remembered by people who lived in them with fondness. The neighbors were all in the same boat, and there was a true sense of community in the town and among the workers. The movie also references the fact that the efforts to unionize often were due to Black workers, most of whom had come into the cotton mills only after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also shows how factory management tried to portray unions as a Black stronghold, knowing that the long-held prejudices would cause a rift in the union ranks.
Norma Rae Webster is a wonderfully flawed character. When a New York union organizer comes to town, Norma Rae makes no effort to hide or sugarcoat the mistakes that have defined her adult life. Far from being a victim of her circumstances, Norma Rae is quick to seize any opportunity that might improve her life and those of her children. She begins to see the potential for her life as greater than being just another cog in the machine.
Okay, I do have a few quibbles with Norma Rae. Despite a very strong performance, I found Sally Field’s (and Beau Bridges’s as well) fake North Carolina accent to be very distracting. I realize that would not be so much a problem for people outside the region, because they are not going to hear it the same way. Why is it that everyone in Hollywood thinks a Southern accent is easy to imitate?
Also, I thought the scenes with Pat Hingle as a doffer were pretty darned funny. Doffers manually changed the bobbins on the machines when they emptied. It was a high speed job, requiring manual dexterity and accuracy. Pat Hingle looked like he was doing the job in slow motion. In actuality, he would probably have been replaced on that job years ago.
Image copyright 20th Century Fox