Blue Collar (1978)
Written by Paul Schrader & Leonard Schrader
Directed by Paul Schrader
The American automotive industry was once a significant piece of the national mythos. It was born out of the personal legend-making of Henry Ford and kept growing from there. The conflict between the companies and the unions dragged on for decades, a constant tension between workers & management that came to its fatal end with the election of Ronald Reagan, a nail in the coffin of American union power. This was Paul Schrader’s directorial debut, riding high off the acclaim from his screenplay for Taxi Driver. By the end of Blue Collar’s shoot, the filmmaker would have a nervous breakdown and reconsider his career choices. Fueled by a trio of actors with big egos and a strong dislike for each other, Schrader was at the center of a work that would prove chaotic on many fronts.
Three Michigan auto workers are toiling away, growing discontented with a union that seems unconcerned with their needs. Zeke (Richard Pryor) has three kids and a tax bill hanging over his head. Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) is an ex-con that can see right through the systems that control his life. Jerry (Harvey Keitel) senses the union has been pulling the wool over the workers’ eyes becoming no better than the company’s management. Desperate for cash, they plot and carry out a robbery of the union coffers. However, they only find $600, revealing that the pension money is all gone. It’s decided to blackmail the union leaders with this knowledge of fiscal irresponsibility, but they aren’t quick enough as the leaders go to the police and press, making sure they claim over $10,000 was stolen. That’s what it said in the cooked books, and now they can be reimbursed through insurance, making a profit. Now that all parties know the truth, it behooves the union leadership and the company to stop these three men. That will be through various means, with different solutions working for each man.
Blue Collar was a box office flop, with a lot of hype behind it due to the CVs of its cast & crew. Though it didn’t do well financially, it is still a fantastic film. It came in the wake of 1977 when Star Wars remapped much of the American cinematic landscape. Movies about the bleak realities of life were falling out of fashion for escapist fantasies. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean conditions were improving for the general public; film became an opioid to obliterate their minds and forget the pain.
The film presents a potentially controversial view of automotive unions. I am almost always a pro-union guy, save the police “union,” which doesn’t count. I acknowledge the intersection of unions and organized crime in the United States, but I don’t immediately see it as a negative. Power is always about balance and taking advantage of your resources. Wielding power will mean using others to pursue your goals. To behave as if there’s some natural noble goodness in power-wielding is to take on a childlike view of reality. If a union can effectively wield the arm of organized crime to reach its goals, then it should. We don’t refer to the police and corporate sector as organized crime because they exist in the realm of the “legal,” an artificial and historically flexible identifier. The problem when unions intermingle with the mob is when the mob takes the driver’s seat and harms the workers.
Schrader is always fascinated with why people act against their own interests. Travis Bickle is a character that harms himself constantly. You see the same thing in recent pictures like Affliction, First Reformed, and The Card Counter. Zeke is the main character who ends up damaging himself to save himself, aligning his interests with those of the company and the union, who are clearly working in the company’s and themselves’ interests. On the other hand, Jerry is a somewhat naive idealist who decides to work with the FBI’s investigation of the union by the film’s end. In the long term, the FBI will use Jerry to pursue their anti-worker interests. Zeke is experiencing the same at the hands of the company. And poor Smokey, he never even had a chance.
Smokey exists outside the sphere of manipulation that is applied to Zeke & Jerry. Smokey spent time in prison, and he has become enlightened to the habits & machinations of the system. This is why he’s labeled as someone who has to die when we glimpse a meeting among those in power. You can’t put Smokey’s consciousness back in the box based on what he has experienced. He is enlightened. The other men are still operating on the very edges of believing that if they work hard enough and follow the rules closely enough, they will be rewarded.
Behind the scenes, Schrader struggled to wrangle his three leads, whom he referred to as “bulls,” due to their stubborn personalities and almost constant clashes. Pryor reportedly pointed a gun at Schrader on set one day, declaring he wasn’t doing more than three takes of any scene. Keitel grew irritated with Pryor’s penchant for improvisation, which led to Pryor and Kotto pinning Keitel to the floor and punching the shit out of him. Schrader said that when you yelled “cut,” the actor whom the camera wasn’t directly on would be out of there, always wanting to be as far from each other as possible. Despite the contentious behavior on set, Schrader was intent on making a movie in the vein of socialist realism, a study of the working conditions of Americans at the end of the 1970s. I think he succeeded, and those interpersonal tensions between actors helped the movie feel like a simmering pot ready to boil over. It certainly hasn’t gotten a fair shake, and Blue Collar is a picture that is still profoundly relevant to conditions in America today.