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The American nightmare
Let’s pick up the pace a little bit, we’re already behind schedule, and make sure those wires are looking right, I don’t want any more accidents.
Just chew on this early line, being spoken by a foreman (credited as “Dogshit Miller”) to employees, from Blue Collar (1978), and consider everything that the film is telling us from the outset. Go faster. We need more. Don’t fuck up. It’s quite a pep talk.
If you’re familiar with Office Space (1999) this is a movie that feels like an angrier, sharpened, alternate version of Office Space. (Movie Night considers Office Space a timeless classic.) The amount of time that elapsed between Blue Collar and Office Space is 21 years, which is 3 years less than the time between now and Office Space. Anyway, Blue Collar is the directorial debut of Paul Schrader, who you might remember from a previous Movie Night post regarding his magnum opus. Blue Collar revolves around three automotive factory workers, Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel), and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), who are frustrated with their jobs. (See opening quote.) Struggling to make ends meet, they decide to rob their corrupt union office, though for nobler ends: they hope to find evidence of embezzlement. Their plan goes awry when they discover a much larger and more dangerous conspiracy. Tensions rise, and betrayals unfold. The trio’s union is challenged as they navigate webs of deceit and attempt to reconcile their beliefs with the madness around them. Or are they the mad ones?
If this sounds familiar, it’s because little has changed since this film was made. It might also be familiar because the general dynamic at play is also the backbone of every I Think You Should Leave sketch. Paul Schrader, one of the most authentic1 American filmmakers alive, made this film shortly after having written Taxi Driver (1976), which was a breakout for the greatest living director, Martin Scorsese.
Something that might stand out if you were to comb through Schrader’s catalog, is that the actors he casts in roles are unpredictable. Richard Pryor has the top billing in this film. When the film was released in 1978, Richard Pryor was already an established and highly regarded comedian and actor. Any student of comedy will be familiar with Pryor’s routines, which showcased his sharp wit, social commentary, and fearless approach to tackling sensitive subjects like race and politics. Prior to "Blue Collar," Pryor had already appeared in several successful films, including "Silver Streak" (1976) and "Car Wash" (1976). His role in "Blue Collar" marked a departure from his typical comedic roles, showcasing his versatility as an actor. Pryor's performance in the film was widely praised, highlighting his ability to tackle more dramatic material while still bringing depth and authenticity to his character.
There are flashes in Blue Collar that speak to the power of unions, for good or for ill, though they fly under the radar if you’re not paying close attention. Conversations between managers and employees are on an equal footing that feels like fantasy compared to modern depictions (and reality?) of similar situations. This equal footing is clearly the result of a union that makes workers feel comfortable speaking truth to power.
Grounded performances and a Detroit-based Ibsen-esque screenplay made watching this movie feel akin to taking communion with workers across the country. It felt close to the pinnacle of working-class representation in the most unlikely of places: a Hollywood film. The actual pinnacle of working-class representation in film is the second season of The Wire, or some might argue, On The Waterfront (1954). The film build and builds until you reach a point where it must all come crumbling down, and the most tragic aspect is that it feels so predictable, but the characters can’t stop. You might even see yourself as a silent Judas, watching from the comfort of your living room. Blue Collar conveys a message about the struggles and disillusionment of the working class. It’s about the oppressive nature of the labor system and the corruption that often accompanies it. The film will push you to consider economic inequality, exploitation, and the loss of individual identity in a dehumanizing environment. That environment isn’t just Detroit. It’s America, and little has changed.
Written by Paul Schrader and Leonard Schrader; Directed by Paul Schrader
Let’s argue about what “authentic” means some other time.