It’s strangely apt that I should find myself writing about the movie that garnered Sally Field an Oscar on the same evening that she snagged an Emmy—and found her acceptance speech censored by Fox when she made some antiwar comments. Certainly, it’s an interesting turn of events for a woman who rode to Oscar victory on an outspokenly political film. That’s something people tend to forget today, owing to the fact that the Oscars and the ridiculously chipper photo of Field used to promote the film have tended to make Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae look a little too respectably mainstream to take completely seriously.
The fact, of course, is that it’s a piece of pro-union agitprop helmed by a filmmaker who spent some time on Sen. McCarthy’s blacklist in the 1950s. What better credentials can you ask for? And the truth is that it’s a beautifully made, splendidly acted film that more than achieves its aims, since it strays outside the realm of mere propaganda to become a tale as much about personal empowerment—through the realization that poverty and ignorance create a unique trap—as it is a political screed. Looked at anew, without the baggage of popularity, it’s a case where mainstream isn’t a pejorative term.