Cotton dust is heavy during Norma Rae, a gutsy and emotional union struggle amidst a sturdy if impoverished Southern town where everyone has three names. Textile workers are overworked and underpaid as a Union rep is rejected by said employees, causing Norma Rae to bite back with feisty ’70s era feminism.
Norma Rae is a film of natural tensions instead of caricature, interesting for a genre often suffocated by sour faced corporate goons or a cranky school dean provoked into anger by meaningful change. Sally Field – at the time typecast by Gidget and zipping around as a flying nun – shatters conceptions, breaking through Hollywood with a grimy, dingy role as a desperate beer downing single mother.
Beau Bridges and Ron Leibman act as male support systems, Bridges her on-screen husband and Leibman the local lead for Textile Workers Union of America. Before pushing through into a mentally and physically exhausting battle of principals, Norma Rae’s build-up is that of cautious establishment. Characters solidify in place to empower their purposes and personalities, often stifled by waning educational standards.
Inside the factory, machines drone from their worn and cotton soaked parts, a backdrop which requires performances be lifted over the engine’s sonic heft. Field’s understated protest from atop a lonesome table is hashed out with only one written word, setting off a cinematic highlight as workers shut down their motors and silently stand with her. It’s textile’s version of the slow clap, without the egregious cliché.
This is not a battle fought with rocks thrown through windows or death threats slipped under doors. Norma Rae is effectively discreet in handling this narrative based on the labor work of Crystal Lee Sutton. Frustrations agitate one another as company propaganda spills into distrust, ultimately pursuing a story of demanding labor rather than simpleton symbolism.
Politically lifted, Norma Rae retains its relevancy at a time of gross income inequality, even if the insular perspsective cuts off before the post-Union results set in. This is less an anecdote of Southern disgruntlement and more singularly fixated on Rea’s gumption in a period where race division was still embedded – let alone a woman’s rights movement. Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. build their screenplay around an audience appealing heroine while director Martin Ritt smartly lets Field’s work the camera. Results are genuine and feel delivered without acidic embellishment.
Fox issues this worker classic with an AVC encode, battling a grain structure which defies consistency. While losses are frequent, this back-and-forth digital slugfest is at least tackling a pristine source print, with enough fidelity to consider it close to the camera negative.
Available resolution feels strikingly high to reproduce difficult cinematography often locked in darkened factory floors. Fidelity captures stray cotton fibers stuck to machine oil and individual strands of fabrics. Facial definition is infrequent, if only due to techniques of the late ’70s.
Norma Rae does carry a touch of digital color with its layered orange tint to the flesh tones, although these mastering patches are not met with disdain. Instead, it feels elevated for the sake of bringing out saturation in a print which likely faded since its creation. Black levels show minimal loss of scale.
However, it is the compression which can turn smeary. At the worst, a shared outdoor scene with Fields and Bridges sours due to awful digital touch up. Field’s dotted dress sways with VHS-level haze trailing behind each spot. Fuzzy definition strips grain, making the scene an odd anomaly. Otherwise, the bother is minimal if present with some consistency. Grain can flip out and turn into noise, especially notable for those on larger screens. Visual scope is still impressive.
Mono work displays its age even outside of the complex factory recordings. Dialog is not handled with clarity, rather a decipherable aging process. Audio returns a ragged sound, not surprising for a modestly budgeted feature of the period and with leeway offered for those textile mill conversations covered by machinery. Some of these faults appear to lie with modern mastering applying few lifts, and leaving this material as is.
The same can be said for Norma Rae’s book-ended song, “It Goes like it Goes,” hammered and strained by decades of wear. DTS-HD or not, this track has little fight left.
A lone dated bonus feature is a 25-minute Hollywood Backstory. Details on start up difficulties and Field’s turn as an actress are valuable, but Norma Rae lovers have been here before.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.