Norma Rae

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Norma Rae Movie Poster Image
Inspiring pro-union story is good watch-together fare.
  • PG
  • 1979
  • 118 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Promotes standing up for what is right despite overwhelming odds. Describes the courage necessary and frustration experienced in the fight against injustice, greed, and inhuman treatment. Shows that one person can have tremendous impact.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Tracks the maturation, enlightenment, and growing integrity of a poor, ignorant Southern textile mill worker. Norma Rae proves that given some motivation, encouragement, and education, one woman can change herself, her life, and the lives of others.  Offending management, all white males, are portrayed throughout as unfeeling, greedy, and arrogant. Workers (both white and African-American) are initially victims of ignorance, fear, and powerlessness, often hard-drinking, promiscuous or bigoted as a result. A Jewish union organizer is portrayed as selfless, passionate in his quest, and willing to sacrifice for others.


A woman is hit by her boyfriend, later appears with a bloody nose and bruises. Young white thugs beat up a young African-American mill worker. Others come to his rescue.


No nudity or on-screen sexual activity, but there are numerous references to Norma Rae's promiscuous past; men still frequently make verbal sexual advances towards her. She and a boyfriend are shown in a motel room after an adulterous liaison; Norma Rae is dressing, wearing a bra. Two characters swim naked in a pond (there's a brief glimpse of the man's backside through the water); the two never touch. A loving kiss leads to a romantic relationship; the characters marry and are seen sharing a bed.


Occasional swearing and harsh language: "hell," "ass," "goddamn," "s--t," "bastards," "Christ," "spread your legs for a poke," "balls." Some bigotry: "kike," "I heard you had horns"; racial discrimination is clearly demonstrated in several scenes ("you have a black man in our house?").


Coca Cola and Schlitz displayed front and center in multiple scenes. Other products: KFC, Cap'n Crunch, RC Cola, Dr. Pepper, Joy, Brillo.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Beer drinking in numerous scenes. Leading characters get very drunk in a bar (vomiting results). Discussion of driving while drunk; sober companion insists upon taking the wheel. A wedding toast with homemade wine. Some background characters smoke.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this classic union movie makes a strong statement about workers' rights and the impact one person can make in the face of great odds. Swearing and harsh language is common ("hell," "s--t," "ass,") and some racial and ethnic slurs are heard ("kike"). There are no sexually explicit scenes, but references to Norma Rae's promiscuous past and male come-ons run throughout. Two characters take a nude swim together, but there is no sexual behavior; only the man's backside can be briefly glimpsed through the water. In one scene, Norma Rae is slapped by a boyfriend and appears soon after with a bloody nose and bruises. White thugs attack an African-American worker, but his friends quickly come to his aid. Characters drink beer and wine occasionally and talk about drinking; one scene shows the drunk heroine vomiting.

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What's the story?

Based on real incidents, NORMA RAE tells the story of a union organizer (Ron Liebman in a fiery performance as Reuben) who arrives in a Southern Baptist mill town to unite the workers in one of the last industries to resist the labor movement: textile manufacturing. Conditions are deplorable: harsh rules, unsafe environment, low pay, heartless management. The film focuses on the workers' uneasy transformation as one of their own, Norma Rae, becomes their voice. Norma Rae (Sally Field in her first Oscar-winning role) is spirited, street smart, and sometimes self-destructive, especially when it comes to relationships with men. Though she's determined to try to give her two children a better life, she realizes that she faces a bleak future as do her friends, family, and co-workers. Braving what she knows may be an insurmountable task with great risk attached, Norma Rae joins forces with Reuben and works beside him to stand up for herself and her peers. When she meets, falls in love with, and marries Sonny (Beau Bridges), the personal stakes become even greater for her. Still Norma Rae knows that at the heart of the fight is nothing less than a chance for a decent life and human dignity for an entire community.

Is it any good?

Norma Rae was a landmark film when it was released in 1979, and it hasn't lost any of its impact. Strong performances with characters who are flawed as well as courageous makes the film feel genuine, not the story of a real life superhero, but of a woman who rose above her own limitations to help repair an unjust world. Efforts to portray the growing connection between African-American and Southern white workers make a compelling statement as well.

It's fairly recent history and hard to accept the fact that such conditions existed in the United States for so long. Though one-sided (management and ownership show no empathy for the workers), for families who hope to inspire social consciousness, it's a wonderful movie to watch along with teens.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the differences between movie superheroes and heroes like Norma Rae. Which is more relateable? Which is more inspiring? Which is more common in movies?

  • What does the movie say about the importance of education? Does their lack of good schooling make the workers more likely to be victims of an unfair system?

  • Can you think of a time when you stood up and fought for something you believed in even if it was scary? What are some things you value and might find yourself willing to protect? Why is it important to speak up if you see something wrong?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love drama

Themes & Topics

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