AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Norma Rae
Director: Martin Ritt (Dir)
Release Date:   1979
Duration (in mins):  114
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Cast: Sally Field  (Norma Rae [Wilson/Webster])
  Ron Leibman  (Reuben [Warshovsky])
  Beau Bridges  (Sonny [Webster])

Summary: In the summer of 1978, Norma Rae Wilson and her parents, Leona and Vernon Witchard, are among the laborers who operate the noisy weaving machines at the O.P. Henley textile mill in the small, Southern town of Henleyville. On her lunch break, Norma notices that her mother’s hearing is damaged and rushes her to the factory doctor, Dr. Watson, who dismisses the deafness as temporary. His lack of concern angers her. At home, Norma helps her father clean the kitchen and encourages her two children, Craig and Millie, to do their homework. As she is preparing to go out, Reuben Warshovsky, a labor organizer from New York City, arrives at the door inquiring about renting a room with a mill family. Although Vernon has never received a raise, he states that Reuben and his union are not welcomed. That evening, Norma meets her lover, George Benson, at a motel. Following sex, Norma tells George that she no longer wants to continue the affair, and he slaps her. As Norma leaves the room, she sees Reuben who has just checked into the motel. After he prepares an ice pack for her bleeding nose, she apologizes for her father’s rudeness and says that Reuben is the first Jewish person she has ever met. Outside the Henley mill, Reuben hands out leaflets for the TWUA (Textile Workers Union of America). A factory supervisor, Jimmy Jerome Davis, states that a union organizer seems to arrive every four years, just like the locusts. During her shift, Norma is informed that she is being promoted to spot-checking. Gardner, her boss, hopes that the raise will encourage her to complain less. With a clipboard in hand, she records worker productivity, including her father’s, who resents her new authority. When she monitors an employee named Sonny Webster, he begins to act silly and taunts her. Norma is not amused, warning him that his behavior could get them fired. That night, Sonny stops by Norma’s house to apologize, explaining that he was wound up after receiving divorce papers earlier, and invites her out for a drink. She accepts, ignoring her father’s disapproval about going out with another, new man. As she starts her shift one morning, Norma notices that the workers, who are also her friends, will not talk to her. When one of them calls her a “fink,” she announces to Gardner that she is quitting, recognizing that she is being used to identify the slow laborers so the company can eliminate them. Refusing to fire Norma because of her family’s long history with the mill, he reassigns her to the weaving room. She smiles when her friend Bonnie Mae welcomes her back as one of them. One afternoon, Sonny drives Norma, along with her children and his daughter, Alice, to the lake. While the kids are playing, he proposes to Norma, reasoning that as single parents they can help each other. Soon afterwards, Sonny and Norma are married. Sometime later, Norma attends a meeting organized by Reuben who gives a persuasive speech about exploitation in the textile industry and urges everyone to sign a union card. On another day, Norma observes Reuben’s tenacity as he inspects the factory bulletin boards to confirm that the TWUA notices are posted. Before long, she shows up at his motel room, now a makeshift office, to ask if participation with the union will jeopardize her job. After Reuben reassures her, Norma signs up. As she campaigns for the union during a work break, supervisor Lujan harasses Norma, but she is not intimidated. When Reverend Hubbard refuses to let her use the church for a union meeting because it will include African-Americans and whites, she organizes the gathering at her home, despite Sonny’s protest. During the meeting, the workers describe the prison-like conditions at the factory, and one woman speaks about her husband who recently died from “brown lung.” Afterward, Reuben is worried, since his campaign has only attracted seventeen workers, so Norma suggests they reach out to people along the back roads. During an evening at home, Norma is busy making calls on behalf of the union when Sonny complains that she is neglecting her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Provoked, she begins charging through household chores until Sonny calms her. One day during his shift, Vernon’s arm goes numb and he wants to lie down, but the floor supervisor advises him to carry on until his upcoming break. He tries to continue, but suddenly collapses and dies. Following Vernon’s death, Reuben’s motel office is crowded with volunteers. When Norma yells at someone for being late, Reuben kicks her out of the office; however, he follows her to a nearby diner, assuring her that she is the “Mother Jones” of their cause. One evening, Al London and Sam Dakin, officials with TWUA’s national headquarters, arrive at the motel, worried about Reuben’s association with Norma. In her presence, they complain to Reuben that she has an illegitimate child and a promiscuous reputation, which the mill can use to tarnish the union’s image. Screaming, Reuben staunchly defends her and orders the men to leave. Sometime later, Norma calls Reuben from the factory to notify him of an incendiary letter posted by the company, declaring that African-Americans are going to take over the union. As Reuben meets her at the gates, a group of white workers are beating up an African-American because of his union sympathies. If Norma cannot obtain the letter, Reuben tells her to memorize it and then write it down. During her break, Norma is able to replicate most of the letter on a piece of toilet paper, but Reuben criticizes her for not getting the entirety, reiterating that the union needs the exact wording to take legal action. The next day, Norma furiously copies the letter in front of her supervisors. Leroy Mason, the top manager, orders her to put down the pencil and paper. In his office, Norma remains defiant, and Mason demands that she immediately leave the factory. In the weaving room, a guard tries to escort her out, but she resists. Among the din of the machines, Norma writes “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and stands on a table holding it above her head. As the workers look up, they begin to switch off their machines until the factory floor is quiet. When Sheriff Lamar Miller arrives, Norma proudly walks out of the building with him, but once outside, she realizes that he is arresting her and not taking her home. While she kicks and screams, they force her into the police car. At the station, Norma is booked for disorderly conduct, but Reuben posts bail later that evening. As she cries from the trauma of the experience, Reuben instructs her that being arrested is minor when compared to the real dangers of union organizing. As soon as she gets home, Norma wakes up her children to disclose her arrest, her imperfect past and the identity of their fathers, so that they will be prepared when people gossip about her. Even though it got her fired, she explains to them that she believes in the union. Sometime later, a crowd of workers waits inside the factory while the union vote is counted. Outside, Norma and Reuben listen to the cheers when the result is announced in favor of the union. Norma holds back tears while she walks Reuben to his car, which is packed for his trip back to New York. After thanking each other, they shake hands, and Norma watches him drive away. 

Distribution Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Production Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Director: Martin Ritt (Dir)
  Jack Terry (Unit prod mgr)
  James Nicholson (Asst dir)
  Glenn "Skip" Surguine (2d asst dir)
Producer: Tamara Asseyev (Prod)
  Alex Rose (Prod)
Writer: Irving Ravetch (Scr)
  Harriet Frank Jr. (Scr)

Subject Major: Labor agitators
  Textile mills
  Trade unions
  Women laborers
Subject Minor: Antisemitism
  Cotton mills
  Factory management
  Factory workers
  Occupational diseases
  Rural life
  United States--South

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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