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On ‘Blue Collar,’ the 1976 Classic About Race and the Working Class

In Paul Schrader’s unheralded gem, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel play Detroit autoworkers who rob their own union in a plan that epitomizes the toil of the working man

Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel in ‘Blue Collar’ Universal/Ringer illustration

The essence of the current cultural discourse is that everything we watch is at least latently political. And we, the people, are hungry for political art. This recurring column, The Politics of American Movies, will explore everything from racially progressive Westerns and anti-fascist comedies to documentaries about the working class and popcorn flicks with subversive bite.

It was supposed to be an easy job. When Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey—the three Detroit autoworkers at the center of Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978)—make a plan to rob their union, they make it sound like it’s going to be a piece of cake. There’s just one guard, some nose-picking dweeb who should be a pinch to take down. And the safe itself will be easy to find thanks to a girl on the inside, at the union’s bureau headquarters, who tells them where it is. This robbery is exactly what it sounds like: an act of desperation. It’s also a plan hatched at dawn, after a long night of coke-addled partying and sex—conditions that camoflauge every bad idea as a good one.

But the men have their reasons. They have their debts and, above all, their desires. Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor) is in deep with the IRS, to the tune of over $2,000, for claiming more kids than he has on his tax forms for the past six years. Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel), meanwhile, works two jobs, but still doesn’t make enough to support his wife and kids. He’s got a daughter so desperate for braces that she tried to make a homemade pair with some metal clips she found around the house; one day Jerry comes home and her mouth is a bloody mess. Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto) has no wife or kids—only debts to loan sharks that could put his life in danger.

Each man is in a desperate position. Yet hovering above it all is what’s maybe the real reason for this robbery. Blue Collar is a movie in which the bad guys far outnumber the good guys because the bad guys are power incarnate and the good guys merely work for it. The bad guys, in this case, comprise not only the government agents trying to destroy the autoworkers’ union, nor just the plant owners who feel they’d be better off paying their workers the bare minimum, but also the union itself. The good guys want a chance to get back at the union for what can generously be called ineffectiveness, but which at worst is corruption that is almost indistinguishable from what goes on at the plants the men work for. If it’s all the same, what’s the difference? So they steal.

That’s the logic, anyway. The consequences are of course more complicated. For one, what the men find in the safe—a measly $600 and a ledger that offers proof of illegal loans being made by the union—isn’t quite what they bargained for. For another: they’re stealing from themselves. “I didn’t set out to make a left-wing film,” Schrader told Cinéaste in 1978. “I had no visions of making this into a concrete political thing; it had to operate in the area of entertainment. I wanted to write a movie about some guys who rip off their union because it seemed to me such a wonderfully self-hating kind of act, that they would attack the organization that’s supposed to help them.”

That’s a bit cynical but, then, this is Paul Schrader we’re talking about. Blue Collar was written by Schrader in collaboration with his brother Leonard. It was Schrader’s directorial debut, coming on the heels of a well-established, even storied, career as a screenwriter. By 1978, the year of the film’s release, he’d already written Taxi Driver, for his pal Scorsese, as well as Obsession (1976) for Brian De Palma, The Yakuza (1974) for Sydney Pollack, and Rolling Thunder (1977) for John Flynn. His successes gave him enough leeway with studios to try his hand at directing. This first effort has gone down, historically, as a somewhat troubled production: Schrader and Pryor, for example, fought so ferociously that Schrader was at one point triggered to have a nervous breakdown.

Those tensions aren’t at all reflected in the film itself, which is as stark as it is elegant. Schrader and his collaborators offer us a rough-hewn, sanded-down realism that’s nevertheless saturated with bitterly ironic symbolism, such as a billboard ticker that tallies up Chrysler’s auto production with emotionless consistency as ties between the workers themselves are eroding. The corporate wheel keeps spinning, it seems. The movie opens with a rich, musical credit sequence, the rhythmic labor of the men working in the plant set to the bluesy rush of Captain Beefheart’s “Hard Workin’ Man.” Freeze-frames isolate the men amidst their labor for brief moments, making them unnaturally still—a reminder of, among other things, the overbearing artifice and strategic manipulation that it takes to make men behave like machines.

Blue Collar was the first movie I thought to rewatch heading into Labor Day this past weekend. Its place in the conversation about labor and American cinema is relatively unheralded; at the very least, the movie remains underseen. Class discontent writ large has long reared its head in American movies of all stripes, of course, big and small, fiction and documentary. There are the obvious choices: all-time greats like John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath and Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., a righteous account of a Kentucky coal miners’ strike that is one of the most incisive films of its kind. There are pop-cinema touchstones like Norma Rae (1979), which resulted in Sally Fields’s cry for unionization becoming a tagline (or punch line), and The Deer Hunter (1978), in which the Pennsylvania steel town setting is rendered into gritty, deterministic muck. There’s more: Charlie Chaplin, playing the part of the Little Tramp, made some of the most vexed, rhapsodic tributes to poverty ever made; and who could forget the working-class hero-worship of Rocky and Rudy, Tracy Flick’s fervent anti-rich-kid screeds in Election, or the rags-to-riches ecstasy of both versions of Scarface?

Class politics are obviously bigger and more comprehensive than just the white working class. Though many films have seemingly forgotten this, features like The Exiles (1961), Kent Mackenzie's searing account of jobless and displaced Native Americans trying to make sense of urban life in Los Angeles, and Killer of Sheep (1978), Charles Burnett’s black indie touchstone about an unemployed black slaughterhouse worker, handsomely attest to it. Yet Blue Collar is unique by even those standards. It is, first of all, a studio picture that openly critiques both union corruption and the government’s sly attempts to disrupt legitimate union efforts—a rare subject for Hollywood.

But more importantly, it’s the rare American movie that sees racial difference as an essential weapon in that class fight. One of the only movies I can think of to surpass it in that regard is indeed Rocky, in which race straddles a fine line between subtext and text. In Blue Collar, race is the ultimate text—the ultimate point of difference. And it’s one of the more sly choices on Schrader’s part that it doesn’t quite start out that way. As richly performed by Keitel, Kotto, and, most especially, Pryor, the three men at the movie’s center become fast friends thanks to their similar attitudes and unimpeachable work ethics. Their friendship is easygoing and full of stories and humor, and so is the heist, really, to which the men wear extremely cheap get-ups—googly eyes and fake teeth. It’s a humor that defines their friendship, and one that gets rapidly undercut by the joint efforts of the union leaders and the government to turn the men against each other.

Nobody in the movie better exemplifies this divide than Pryor, whose usual comedic grandiloquence gets tempered here by outright rage. It’s a stunning performance—particularly in the movie’s later stretches, after Zeke makes a sobering compromise. Pryor is the singular force at the center of all of the movie’s social and psychological rifts. His bottom line is providing for his family—and it comes at a cost. “That’s exactly what the company wants: to keep you on their line,” says Smokey, the coolest and most strategically minded of the crew. “They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white—everybody—to keep us in our place.”

This bears out. One of the men gets set up and, in one painfully protracted scene, killed. The other two eventually find themselves completely at odds, thanks to a conflict engineered by the union, the government, or both. The movie ends with the two remaining men fighting each other, both having made choices, regarding the government and the union bosses, that defeat any sense of “union,” or of class-based alliance. The two men cross paths back at the auto plant one last time, and the scene immediately devolves into racial epithets—a final, hopeless impasse from which, the movie suggests, they and everyone else in the plant will never recover. The movie ends here, with this conflict having finally erupted at the surface, as if to say it was inevitable all along. The other men in the factory stop their work to look on, and Schrader smartly pans across their faces as they soak up this now-apparent, previously invisible tension: the gap between black and white.

Compare that with the hopeful ending of Norma Rae, released just a year later, and it becomes possible to see what’s so radical, and original, about this movie. Schrader’s Blue Collar offers up the bitter, outrageous, and ultimately despairing vision of anti-union efforts that the subject deserves. It’s a movie about how power maintains itself through the manipulation and the devastation of the powerless. It’s no wonder it remains one of our most searing visions of class and labor in the history of American movies. And it’s no wonder Hollywood never tried to make it again.