Blue Collar Is a Dark Masterpiece of Working-Class CinemaBreaking News
tags: film, 1970s, cultural history, working class history, Richard Pryor
Unlike today’s Hollywood, where jobs represented on-screen are mostly superhero assassin (Marvel or DC), architect or web designer with the apartment of a tech mogul (romantic comedy), or high-powered executive giving it all up to start a scrappy small-town bakery (Hallmark), 1970s films often found drama and meaning in everyday workplace scenarios that audiences could recognize: Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek bonding and competing as health spa workers in Robert Altman’s 3 Women, or Dustin Hoffman working dead-end jobs while flirting with returning to crime as a paroled convict in Straight Time, or, of course, Sally Field toiling in a textile plant while discovering herself and her power as a union organizer in Norma Rae.
Far fewer people remember Blue Collar, the 1978 film about Detroit autoworkers trying to get ahead without losing their souls. The directorial debut of Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, it features major stars — Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and a nervy, incandescent Richard Pryor, in what Pryor biographers David and Joe Henry call “his finest film performance.”
Blue Collar received strong reviews upon release. Yet today it is rarely counted among the essential films of its time. As one Letterboxd reviewer put it this month: “This movie rips so hard. Why isn’t this on every single list of great films from the 70s?”
To be sure, Blue Collar is not comfort viewing. It is a grim, often brutal portrait of men trapped in a grim, brutal situation of working-class life in Detroit, looking for the wrong ways out, and coming to bad ends. It was made under unhappy conditions and tells an unhappy story. But it brilliantly succeeds as a film and as a dramatization of essential dilemmas facing American working-class men. If you care about good movies or class struggle, you need to see it.
Schrader, who grew up middle-class among working-class communities in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was inspired to make the film by the actual clashes between autoworkers, the boss, and their unions in Detroit, Michigan, and Lordstown, Ohio. As I detail in my book Blood, Sweat, and Fear, Violence in the North American Auto Industry, 1960–80, what are often remembered as good, stable working-class jobs were in fact boring, dirty, dangerous positions where rage, death, and violence were common aspects of daily working life. This made for rich material for a film and, given the hundreds of thousands of workers employed directly or indirectly by the Big Three automakers at the time, an idea with commercial potential.
Keitel, Kotto, and Pryor play Jerry, Smokey, and Zeke, autoworkers whose tight bond as friends helps them cope with the boredom and stress of their jobs. Each man faces financial pressures, and when they decide to rob their own union office to try to get ahead, they uncover a corruption scheme that imperils their friendship and their lives.
Historically, the film blends timelines, combining themes of the late 1960s and early 1970s — union corruption, workplace violence, and black challenges to United Auto Workers (UAW) racism and complacency — with a late 1970s vibe of deindustrialization and working-class implosion. Fittingly, given the subject matter, the production was shaped by conflict, setbacks, and even outright violence.
Schrader’s casting gave studios pause. Two black leads and only one white? You mean the other way around, right? Schrader maneuvered Norman Lear’s T.A.T. Communications into paying his, Keitel, and Pryor’s salaries up front, in order to commit them to the project and prevent it from falling apart. (Amusingly, Pryor’s riffs on the unreality of Lear productions like The Jeffersons and Good Times are some of the film’s funniest moments.)