Three autoworkers: Zeke (Richard Pryor) is in deep with the IRS. Jerry (Harvey Keitel) is working two jobs but still can’t afford to fix his kid’s teeth. Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto) is trying to stay ahead of the loan sharks who are threatening him. After a night of coke and partying, they cook up a plan to fix their problems. They’ll rip off their own union’s funds.
One of the most underrated films of its era, and quite unlike Paul Schrader’s subsequent movies, his directorial debut establishes both the grinding struggles of the American underclass, and the easy humour which can bring men from different backgrounds together in comradeship. (At least for a while.) The film refuses to sentimentalize, nor apologize for its working class heroes, whose plight is very real. Blue Collar has compelling, authentic performances – including Pryor’s best dramatic role – and a very clear delineation of how organised labor is turned against itself. The hammer and tongs blues score is by Jack Nietzsche.
For a different, complementary take on unions and the labor movement, see Sally Field in Norma Rae.
The scenes in the auto plant feature compelling shots of machines and men hard at work that recall both the verité documentaries of Frederick Wiseman and the gritty realism of 70s blaxploitation filmmaking. The moral crises of Blue Collar are no less dire than in Schrader’s more religiously themed work, but here they spring from a fully observed environment. As a result, the movie is affecting as a social portrait as well as a psychological drama.
Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader
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.
K Austin Collins, The Ringer
The film is funny, suspenseful and righteously angry, arguing that nearly everything organized workers won in the first half of the 20th century had been stolen back by the greedy and powerful.
Noel Murray, Rolling Stone
Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader
Lawrence G. Paull