Auto Focus: Revisiting Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar
With the U.S. auto industry on the verge of financial collapse, and the U.A.W.’s go-to guy, Ron Gettelfinger, getting an ass-whupping at the hands of a pugnacious Republican senator from Tennessee last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking organized labor is not just in decline, it’s all but muerte. Were things better for auto workers 30 years ago? Nah. At least not in the movies. Hearing about the Big Three’s travails got me thinking about Paul Schrader’s 1978 hard-hat drama Blue Collar, in which three Detroit assembly-line workers (Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto), disgruntled at management and feeling the pinch of economic down times, hatch a break-in plot at the office of their union local, whose president is a tin-eared bigwig in cahoots with the mafia.
Disillusionment was rampant in the oil-poor, inflationary era of Jimmy Carter, and Schrader’s directorial debut, co-written with his brother Leonard, is a sullen and cynical underdog film that seems to carry a single, univocal message to the American factory worker: You’re fucked. Voicing contempt for exploitive shop managers and clueless corporate fat cats as well as the malfeasance of an ineffective union leadership compromised by its criminal connections, Blue Collar is an angry film in which every political option available to its financially hard-bitten protagonists—even blackmail—is (literally, in one case) a dead end. What makes this kitchen-sink-style, end-of-the-American-dream Rust Belt bum-out so worth revisiting, however, is the presence of an electric, comically savage Pryor. The foul-mouthed funnyman was already a veteran screen performer with nearly 20 films to his credit by the time Schrader came calling (The Mack, Car Wash, Which Way Is Up?), but he gave the finest performance of his career in Blue Collar, as the IRS-aggrieved Checker Cab assembler Zeke.
Outrage was his metier as a stand-up comedian, and Pryor, always a trenchant observer of race and social hypocrisy in America, played the part with a mix of lacerating wit and debt-embittered, proletarian irritability. Schrader’s own thematic strong suit, as the film’s co-writer and director, was to depict workers aware of how they’ve become pawns in a system that schemes to divide them. As Kotto’s ex-con Smokey opines at one point, “Everything they do, the way they pit lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the blacks against the whites, is meant to keep us in our place.” Despite its progressive outlook on the possibility of interracial camaraderie, Blue Collar is, politically speaking, an almost intractably pessimistic film. And incidentally, some of the characters’ anger and volatility apparently erupted from real-life circumstance. According to Schrader, none of his actors got along on the set, and squabbled constantly. (Pryor reportedly cold-cocked Keitel and busted a chair over Kotto’s back. Solidarity!)
Blue Collar is, nevertheless, an excellent film to ponder in our economically beleaguered present, when a constant stream of news about failing banks, government bailout packages, and high-profile investors lured by wicked Ponzi schemes threatens to make the plight of working-class strivers even less visible than in the late seventies. What author Peter Biskind said about Blue Collar then is equally true today: “Most Hollywood films stare with a fixed gaze at the upper-middle class. Blue Collar doesn’t, and for this we can be thankful.” Amen to that.
Below is a clip from Schrader’s harmonica-blues-flavored opening sequence, filmed on location at a Checker plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the writer-director’s home state.