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Celebrating Labor Day with ‘Blue Collar,’ Paul Schrader’s 1978 Working Class Classic

Blue Collar 1978 Paul Schrader
Universal Pictures

At a time when the richest citizens and corporations in America seemingly skate on paying any taxes, inflation is running amok on the daily cost of living, and the least appreciated and lowest paid workers are walking off their jobs in droves, there’s no better time to celebrate Paul Schrader’s 1978 directorial debut “Blue Collar.”

The plot for the largely underseen flick follows Detroit autoworkers Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor), Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto) as they decide to burgle their own union, which is criminally mis-aligned with its members’ own interests. The trio are initially disappointed by the paltry haul. However, they discover that they have made off with something potentially far more lucrative that straight cash: the union’s ledger, filled with fake figures and evidence of links to organized crime.

“Blue Collar” typifies the daily lament of working stiffs the world over. “A man’s supposed to be able to take care of his family,” Zeke says. “I never was good with money. I’m just f—in’ always broke, man … I f—in’ can’t get to the back of that s–t.”

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Though the film is cynical about unions–and work–in general, it still plays to the oftentimes romanticized notion that a unified coalition of workers can pose a threat to the ruling class. When Zeke tries to parlay his newfound leverage against the union for the sake of a noble cause, union president Eddie Johnson douses the notion with cold reality, asking “How the hell do you think things get changed around here? Not by pie-in the sky martyrs,” sounding like every boss and old-school politician who ever dressed down a young, eager idealist.

Given the growing class divide in America, with income inequality the worst it’s been in generations and the proportion of middle-income households decreasing from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2019, “Blue Collar” has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. A plethora of media outlets have written retrospectives on the flick, with Film Forum in New York City giving the film a week-long revival featuring a 35-millimeter print just this past July.

In his Feb. 10, 1978 review of the movie, New York Times critic Vincent Canby praised Pryor’s performance, utilizing “the wit and fury that distinguishes his straight comedy routines.” However, it’s ultimately Schrader’s raw screenplay, drab imagery, and fight-the-power plotline that allows the film to persevere, imbuing “Blue Collar” with a powerful sense of timelessness.

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Consequently, “Blue Collar” is a movie that demonstrates how those in power maintain the status quo through the manipulation and the degradation of the powerless. Though no more extensive explanation can be had than that expressed by Kotto’s indictment of the situation: “They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the Black against the white — everybody — to keep us in our place.”