Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto
Spoilers Within: Yes
Film 10 – #12 in ‘The Hard Drive Randomiser’
Blue Collar starts and ends with the workers. Not friends as such, but colleagues going through the motions of their vocation to get that wageslip, misery and dissatisfaction be damned. Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard’s script focuses on three disgruntled employees of a Detroit auto workshop, each kicking against their dishonest union and the pressure that their working class background provides.
These three are desperate for something more than their position can afford: Zeke (Richard Pryor) cheats the IRS by claiming benefits on more children than he actually has; Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) is in dire straights due to a debt with a loan shark, and Jerry (Harvey Keitel) works a second job to afford dental surgery for his daughter, who attempts makeshift dentistry with a wire hanger. All of these positions are afflictive of their character, and – after a drug-fuelled sex party – the three protagonists decide the answer to all their problems lies in a clumsily performed robbery, one that nets them something far more important and ruinous than money.
This pre-robbery set-up is a brilliant introduction to a racially-inclusive workplace, and though historically it was the minorities that had the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs, in Blue Collar everyone on this assembly line is the same. This is constantly knocked on the head by the foremen and the union bosses who lecture Zeke and Smokey on the company’s history: before these white saviours were there, black men and women were not allowed to mix, so they should be thankful for this opportunity of hard, thankless labour, even in spite of the social and financial pressures it causes them.
The post-robbery is where personal- and employee- unions fray: paranoia, hatred (both exclusive and racial), and double-crossing breaks out amongst the three, which is play to some typically smashing acting from Keitel, and an unexpectedly dramatic turn from Pryor, who – although earns some laugh-out-loud moments – commands the screen with an angry nihilism that should have afforded his career with similar, less outright comedic roles.
It’s well documented that the three core members of the cast hated each other, which caused genuine offscreen clashes, so it’s to Schrader’s ultimate credit that he managed to command them so effectively and channel some of that fury into their characters, even when it potentially caused a career-threatening mental breakdown. Knowing this, extra weight can be given to that final, freeze-frame moment: an eruption of verbal provocation, whilst Smokey’s words echo: “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.”
Combining a smartly harsh script, always-relevant attitudes toward racial- and class-conflicts, and a terrific trio of actors whom all embody their characters with a truthful intensity: Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar is not only his best but one of the best of the 1970s.