Even though it was made back in 1978, “Blue Collar” doesn’t feel at all dated thematically. Dealing with crooked unions and frustrations with a job that never pays you enough is something many of us still deal with in this day and age. Watching it more than 30 years after its initial release makes me wonder how much, if any, progress has been made for any American workers.
Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto star as a trio of Detroit auto workers who work hard at their jobs but never get much respect for what they do. They get crap thrown at them by their superiors, and the union doesn’t seem all that interested in helping them. The divisions between the blue and white collar workers are heavily pronounced, and tensions and bitterness are always at an all-time high.
Pryor’s character of Zeke Brown feels especially disrespected and is never afraid to hide his frustrations from the union or anyone else who pisses him off. Even worse, Zeke gets a visit from the IRS informing him of back taxes he can’t even afford to pay. Keitel’s character of Jerry Bartowski works at a gas station as well as the auto factory, but barely make ends meet and can’t even afford braces for his daughter who desperately needs them. Then there’s Kotto’s character of Smokey James, a man who served time in prison and is well aware of how the class structure is designed to keep everyone where they are so the powerful people can stay powerful. But even he has his breaking point, and he’s finally reaching it after all this time.
Fed up with the union’s incompetence, the three men rob the union of the money they keep in their not very well hidden vault. The robbery is sloppily handled, but they make out with the safe which has only a few hundred dollars, but it also contains a ledger which shows how seriously corrupt the union is. On top of being involved in an illegal loan lending operation, the ledger also shows their ties with organized crime syndicates. With this information, they decide to blackmail the crooked union into giving them tons of cash which will take care of all their financial problems. Their plan, however, soon exposes their naïve nature as the union quickly resorts to methods which can never be mistaken as legal.
What will happen from there will tear friendships apart and leave them paranoid of one another and of those they can’t trust. “Blue Collar” works as a critique of those unions which poorly represent their workers, and it is also a brilliant character piece and a thriller where lives hang in the balance as the powers that be aren’t about to be comprised by anyone, especially those in the lower class.
“Blue Collar” was Schrader’s directorial debut, and it’s a remarkably impressive one. He vividly captures the hard-working atmosphere these men inhabit and is aided by a tough as nails blues song for the movie’s main title which was performed by the late Captain Beefheart. There are moments in the “Hard Workin’ Man” song where all the other instruments disappear except for a deep thundering metal boom which hints at the anger and frustration slowly boiling to the surface for these characters. The environment they work in is harsh and unforgiving, and while they value what they do, no one above them seems to as they are considered to be easily disposable.
This was one of Pryor’s few dramatic roles, but it’s not bereft of his humor. Considering his work as a comedian and a social satirist, he is perfectly cast here and infuses the Zeke with humor and a wounded soul which will never fully be mended. Pryor really shows an acting range most dramatic actors only dream of having.
In fact, that’s the sad thing about watching Pryor in this film; he really was one of the lost dramatic actors of our time as he never got to play many serious roles which were deserving of his talent. We all know him to be one of the best comedians ever, and he did star in some very funny movies. Still, he got stuck in a lot of crappy ones which never utilized his talents fully, and it is an enormous loss he never got to do more dramatic work.
Keitel gives another great performance in a career filled with them, and he always inhabits his characters more than play them. Jerry Bartowski is a strong guy on the surface, but seeing him become completely unraveled after the robbery allows Keitel to expose the character’s vulnerabilities of which there are plenty. There are moments where he doesn’t utter a word and yet you can see on his face what is racing through his anxiety-ridden mind. Bartowski may see himself as his own man who answers to no one, but he soon finds there is a limit to the choices he has when it comes to keeping his head above water.
Kotto, who has since become one of the most undervalued actors working today, has constantly been cast as an unforgettable imposing presence in every film he has appeared in. Whether it’s as Parker in “Alien,” Special Agent Mosley in “Midnight Run” or as Al Giardello on the brilliant “Homicide: Life on the Street,” he never fails in giving us a character who feels larger than life. “Blue Collar” is no exception as he portrays someone wise about the world around him, but not wise enough to know when he and his pals are digging a hole too deep for them to climb out of. His character’s fate feels the most tragic as a result, and the last scene he has is amazing in its power.
With Schrader’s movies, a common theme runs through them of the emasculated male wanting to make a difference in a society he sees as corrupt and in need of saving. Be it Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Willem Dafoe as John LeTour in “Light Sleeper” or even Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse from “Affliction,” Schrader deals fearlessly with characters whose hold on sanity we see constantly erode. Now with the three leads in “Blue Collar,” each of them are pushed to the limit as they slowly realize the trouble they have brought upon themselves. Watching it destroy their friendship, which brings about a strong mistrust between them, is as fascinating as it is painful to witness.
I’m not sure how many people out there are aware of “Blue Collar,” but it is one of those movies from the 70’s deserving of a big audience from one generation to the next. Watching it today is even more bittersweet as those auto factories in Michigan where the movie was shot no longer exist. It was tough for the people who worked there back then, but imagine what it must be like for them now. The movie ends in a freeze frame which brilliantly encapsulates how the union and those in power continue to stay on top of the working man. After all these years, it doesn’t feel like much has changed, but anyone and everyone out there is welcome to prove me wrong.