Blue Collar (1978) – Paul Schrader’s powerful directorial debut is more relevant now than ever

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I’m sure many cinephiles will agree with me when I say that the 70s were the Golden Age for American cinema. This was a time when directors had more freedom and more creative control over the films they wanted to do. This allowed the rise of many amazingly talented directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin etc. I’m going to have to add Paul Schrader’s name as well to that list. He successfully established himself with the phenomenal screenplay of Taxi Driver, which was directed by Scorsese. Riding high on the success of this film, he decided to make his directorial debut two years later with a criminally overlooked film called Blue Collar, starring Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto.

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Blue Collar tells the story of three people who work at a Detroit automobile plant. Zeke (Richard Pryor) is an African-American, Jerry (Harvey Keitel) is a Polish-American and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) is another African-American. Just like the machinery at the plant, these guys too work like machines. They lead incredibly frustrating lives, just as all the others working there. All three are struggling financially and are irritated with the way they are being treated by the management and the union. Some of their complaints fall on deaf ears. They entertain themselves by hanging out at bars, engaging in small talk and gossip and amusing stories about each other.

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We learn that Smokey has a criminal past and he doesn’t like it when Zeke brings up this matter in front of the others. During a wild late night party session at Smokey’s residence, they come up with a plan to rob the safe at the union headquarters. To their shock, they discover that the total money in that safe adds up to around $600 and the rest of contents are some documents. They open the document and find a record of the union’s illegal loans and mob connections. With this information in their possession, they decide to blackmail the union. The aftermath of this decision is not quite a pleasant one.

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Blue Collar is a classic anti-establishment film. I don’t see many people talking about this film. It’s primarily  about the oppression of the working class and the cultural discrimination that’s prevalent in society today. I think it’s more relevant now than ever. Schrader has made a film that is gritty,  raw and tremendously entertaining. You get a clear sense of the characters’ plights and their desperation. You almost feel like being among them observing their interactions and experiencing their emotions. These are real human beings just like you and me. It also shows how even the oppressed can one day turn corrupt when they wield the same kind of power that their bosses do.

Paul Schrader. Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto and Richard Pryor
Paul Schrader, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto and Richard Pryor

There is a particular line spoken by Yaphet Kotto in the middle of the film: “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.” It’s this line that would come to define the rest of the film, especially the ending. The actors have all turned in some brutally honest performances. Richard Pryor is the standout among the three. He is truly a revelation. He is mostly known for his comedic work but here he is totally something else. You’ve never seen him this way before. He is not acting his role; he is living it. And I don’t think I have to mention how good Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto are. These guys are some of the most versatile actors Hollywood has ever seen.

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