A hard worker is what springs to mind for me when thinking of what “blue collar” means. Someone not afraid to get their hands dirty, but also work a menial job that requires unionisation, a fight against closure and outsourcing, and a lack of security. Heavy-lifting and soldering has never been much my cup of tea. I am simply too lazy and singular-minded for such work, and my multitasking isn’t great either. Blue Collar is a good enough example, and as director Paul Schrader attempts to get under the skin of problematic management and interfering union brass, wishes to show just how far three blue collar workers have been pushed. They will pull off the heist, one that will rob the union headquarters that is, apparently, looking out for them.
It is the worry in the eyes of Zeke Brown (Pryor) as he meets with the IRS man, who tells him he owes over $2,000. “It’s Uncle Sam” who is to blame, and who knows where the buck stops. Mr. Bird (Leonard Gaines) is more concerned with stringing Zeke along for the measly savings he can make than attesting to the terrible fact of tax evasion at the cream of the crop. Each character is shown to have some problem or another. Whether it is monetary for Zeke, physical pains for Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) or general dissatisfaction for Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto). This trilogy of hardship is what drives Blue Collar to the meat of its story, a heist carried out by people who have nowhere left to turn. It is a justifiable attack on the system set on stomping them out. Schrader and the leading trio work well together, despite the animosity behind the scenes.
None of that horror transfers to the screen, and if it does, then it merely accelerates the intensity of their work and their desire to get themselves out of their rut. What begins as a cocaine-fuelled joke soon turns serious as they contemplate their only way out of such a devastatingly difficult scenario. It is easy to care for desperate men, especially when you have seen those close to you there in that spot before. But it is not the heist that is the height of Blue Collar, but the reactions and impact before and after. They are disgruntled before, and they are worried after, but it is the revelations found through corrupt unions and misplaced documents that really drives the charm and subsequent revolution of the plot.
Schrader may have disowned this movie, but his dedication and efforts here cannot go unacknowledged. Blue Collar is a tremendous piece of film that relies on biting dialogue that, to some degree, captures the animosity and tension between worker, union and management. The vicious hate triangle would strangle the hope and life out of many, but it is here that Kotto, Pryor and Keitel offer their outstanding work, channelling the observations Schrader made in Detroit. As it turns out, many of his observations ring true today, but the workers are not as braggadocios and risky as they were back in the waning days of the 1970s. Blue collar they may be, but how effective their shouts and cries in the face of disaster are is a sadly questionable state. What Schrader has managed here, though, is the sense that, if it were the survival of self against that of the many, then the self would always persevere. It doesn’t matter who you tread on or who gets stabbed in the back, looking out for number one is the sad truth within Blue Collar.