Yaphet Kotto, Richard Pryor, and Harvey Keitel in 1978's "Blue Collar."

Blue Collar September 26, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Paul Schrader

 

STARRING

Richard Pryor
Harvey Keitel
Yaphet Kotto

Ed Begley, Jr.

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1978

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 54 Mins.

Z

eke, Smokey, and Jerry (Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel), best friends who work at the same auto plant in Blue Collar (1978), are tired of mistreatment by their employers and their apathetic, corrupt union representatives. Mid-movie, they decide to rob the latter’s safe. It’s partly an act of revenge, but far more so one of no-other-options financial desperation. Zeke is facing steep IRS

penalties for claiming six children when he only has three. Jerry, who also has a family, can barely afford to keep his family afloat even with two jobs. And Smokey, who is single and spends much money on coke and sex workers, is indebted to a loan shark following his participation in a numbers game. 

 

The trio figures the job will be easy. The union headquarters’ security guard is a sleepy nose-picker; the storage closet keeping the safe isn’t hard to get into. Despite a few glitches, it is an easy job. But the rewards are negligible. The safe only has $600 in it (though management histrionically tells the press it actually held somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000); some stray paperwork inside also suggests illegal loans. The former provides a not-unwelcome, but also vastly disappointing, reward. But the latter, the friends don’t immediately realize, spells danger.
   

Blue Collar was Paul Schrader’s directorial debut. It turned out not to be a very happy occasion for the 32-year-old, who was by then best known as the hot young screenwriter behind movies like Taxi Driver (1976) and Rolling Thunder (1977). Clashes with his actors — particularly Pryor — were so nasty that he infamously had a nervous breakdown on set, seriously reconsiderding his career in the movies. Blue Collar is an angry film; it gives much space for its central trio to vent about their exhaustion over the state of their working lives, which only makes them feel subhuman and inadequate. But you don’t sense behind-the-scenes fury spilling over in the drama as it’s written by Paul and his brother Leonard. Blue Collar is a sharply focused, perceptive, and bracingly pessimistic film about the many indignities of working-class life, powerfully performed by Keitel, Kotto, and particularly a playing-against-type Pryor. (His work — which has some of the comic touches for which he’s appreciated but doesn’t overflow in them — roils with stunningly articulated rage, and ultimately proves one of the best performances of the 1970s.)
 

Blue Collar is unusually precise, too, in its handling of how racial difference can be cynically targeted by both management and dishonorable union officials looking to quash intra-worker solidarity that might give employees an additional, hard-to-pacify power. The crux of Blue Collar’s last act is about how the bond between the movie’s three friends is effectively destroyed by scheming higher-ups, with the latter’s handling of Zeke and Smokey adhering grossly to what they have at stake as respectively married-with-a-family and single Black men. 
 

The film isn’t anti-union; instead it reminds you how unions aren’t impervious to corruption, and how they are not always made equal for its white workers and its workers of color. Zeke, for instance, is met with indifference by management and his union president when he complains for the umpteenth time about a locker broken enough to slice his finger opening it. His white counterparts, meanwhile, tend to get similar requests fixed at the drop of a hat. Unions can solve many things, but at a place of work as monotonously miserable and underpaying — even with the union-bargained raise — they only can do so much. Blue Collar doesn’t end on a hopeful note akin to the more widely seen, and still-good, mainstream unionization drama Norma Rae, which came out the next year. It wades in, and stays put in, the hell of working a hard, badly paying job with no fixes, no hope, to help you move forward, with possibilities of a better future anywhere within reach. Its frankness still takes you aback. A