Remembering Norma Rae

The Academy Awards have come and gone, pulling in over 40 million viewers and proceeding without any noticeable glitches or controversy. As Robert Nathan and Jo-Ann Mort recently wrote in The Nation, it also passed without any films that made a strong political statement.

Nathan and Mort compare the current crop of films to Norma Rae, the dramatic 1979 film by Martin Ritt about union organizing at textile plants in the South. Featuring an unforgettable performance by Sally Fields, Norma Rae was a fictional story of a real and bitter labor campaign -- the fight to organize J.P Stevens, a hard-fisted textile giant at the time.

The Institute for Southern Studies was closely involved in the issue, publishing major reports exposing J.P. Stevens' labor practices and political connections.

Maybe the real-life backdrop of Norma Rae is what gave the movie its punch. As they write:

On a human level, Norma Rae is the story of one woman, played by Sally Field, who finds redemption risking her life for economic justice, and of factory workers demanding to be treated as more than slaves. In the realm of the political, it is virtually the only American movie of the modern era to deal substantially with any of these subjects. Even today it remains iconic--a major studio movie about the lives of working people with a profound and, for its time, disturbing political message: The little guy may have a prayer of getting social justice, but he'll have to fight desperately to get it.

Try to think of a contemporary American film with a similar message or a political statement anywhere near that blunt. The closest thing to a message in this year's crop of Oscar nominees for Best Picture can be found in Babel, which poses the rather mild question, Why can't we all just get along?