Blue Collar Is a Dark Masterpiece of Working-Class Cinema

The 1978 film Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor, is far from pleasant. But its riveting portrait of the brutality of life and work for American autoworkers still makes for essential viewing today.

(Blue Collar / T.A.T. Communications)

Unlike today’s Hollywood, where jobs represented on-screen are mostly superhero assassin (Marvel or DC), architect or web designer with the apartment of a tech mogul (romantic comedy), or high-powered executive giving it all up to start a scrappy small-town bakery (Hallmark), 1970s films often found drama and meaning in everyday workplace scenarios that audiences could recognize: Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek bonding and competing as health spa workers in Robert Altman’s 3 Women, or Dustin Hoffman working dead-end jobs while flirting with returning to crime as a paroled convict in Straight Time, or, of course, Sally Field toiling in a textile plant while discovering herself and her power as a union organizer in Norma Rae.

Far fewer people remember Blue Collar, the 1978 film about Detroit autoworkers trying to get ahead without losing their souls. The directorial debut of Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, it features major stars — Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and a nervy, incandescent Richard Pryor, in what Pryor biographers David and Joe Henry call “his finest film performance.”

Blue Collar received strong reviews upon release. Yet today it is rarely counted among the essential films of its time. As one Letterboxd reviewer put it this month: “This movie rips so hard. Why isn’t this on every single list of great films from the 70s?”

To be sure, Blue Collar is not comfort viewing. It is a grim, often brutal portrait of men trapped in a grim, brutal situation of working-class life in Detroit, looking for the wrong ways out, and coming to bad ends. It was made under unhappy conditions and tells an unhappy story. But it brilliantly succeeds as a film and as a dramatization of essential dilemmas facing American working-class men. If you care about good movies or class struggle, you need to see it.

Dropping Roosters Into a Pit

Schrader, who grew up middle-class among working-class communities in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was inspired to make the film by the actual clashes between autoworkers, the boss, and their unions in Detroit, Michigan, and Lordstown, Ohio. As I detail in my book Blood, Sweat, and Fear, Violence in the North American Auto Industry, 1960–80, what are often remembered as good, stable working-class jobs were in fact boring, dirty, dangerous positions where rage, death, and violence were common aspects of daily working life. This made for rich material for a film and, given the hundreds of thousands of workers employed directly or indirectly by the Big Three automakers at the time, an idea with commercial potential.

Keitel, Kotto, and Pryor play Jerry, Smokey, and Zeke, autoworkers whose tight bond as friends helps them cope with the boredom and stress of their jobs. Each man faces financial pressures, and when they decide to rob their own union office to try to get ahead, they uncover a corruption scheme that imperils their friendship and their lives.

Historically, the film blends timelines, combining themes of the late 1960s and early 1970s — union corruption, workplace violence, and black challenges to United Auto Workers (UAW) racism and complacency — with a late 1970s vibe of deindustrialization and working-class implosion. Fittingly, given the subject matter, the production was shaped by conflict, setbacks, and even outright violence.

Schrader’s casting gave studios pause. Two black leads and only one white? You mean the other way around, right? Schrader maneuvered Norman Lear’s T.A.T. Communications into paying his, Keitel, and Pryor’s salaries up front, in order to commit them to the project and prevent it from falling apart. (Amusingly, Pryor’s riffs on the unreality of Lear productions like The Jeffersons and Good Times are some of the film’s funniest moments.)

Even before shooting, Schrader fended off accusations of racial injustice, as the Black Caucus of the Writer’s Guild brought the grievance of Sydney A. Glass, who had discussed a general auto factory film idea with Schrader, to a dispute. Glass eventually settled with $15,000, some of the back end, and a screenwriting credit.

Schrader wanted to shoot on location at a Ford, GM, or Chrysler factory but couldn’t get the companies to agree. He ended up shooting at a Checker Cab factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The antiquated plant didn’t provide an up-to-the-minute look at what auto work was like, but it was a realistic setting for autoworkers toiling in less modern factories, like Detroit’s Chrysler workers.

(Blue Collar / T.A.T. Communications)

Ironically, the couple who owned the Checker plant were dealing with a probable upcoming strike. They allowed Schrader’s Hollywood crew in as a fun perk for workers. One of Hollywood’s most trenchant portrayals of factory life, then, was made possible by bosses trying to buy off their workers.

The shoot itself, though, would hardly be a good time. Lacking the clout to secure one big star, Schrader opted to ink three minor stars and, in his words, “took all three of these bantam roosters, dropped them in the same pit, and made sure nobody got out first.”

Blood on the Shop Floor, Blood on the Set

Therefore, the most serious conflict shaping the film was the combative relationship between the first-time director and his stars. Whether intentionally or purposefully, Kotto (coming off being a Bond villain in Live and Let Die), Keitel (coming off Mean Streets and Taxi Driver), and Pryor (the biggest stand-up comedian in America) each thought he was the star of the movie. Unsurprisingly, things got heated among the three of them.

Kotto seems to have been pretty philosophical about it, as befitting a man who meditated several hours a day. Keitel, on the other hand, grew so frustrated with Pryor’s monologuing that at one point he threw an ashtray full of cigarette butts into the camera, spoiling a lengthy but riveting Pryor speech. Incredibly, Pryor and his bodyguards jumped Keitel and started beating him.

Another time, Pryor actually pulled a gun on Schrader and informed him that he would never do more than three takes of any one scene. Several times, Keitel walked off set and said he was going to the airport to leave town, having to be talked back into returning. Schrader reportedly endured a nervous breakdown from the shoot.

The conflicts and violence on the set echoed the situation in Detroit’s Chrysler plants during the 1960s and 1970s. In Blood, Sweat, and Fear, I investigate how the company speedup of the work process to a dangerous degree using young black workers as industrial cannon fodder, and the union’s inability or unwillingness to stop them, led to a toxic workplace where fights, beatings, assaults, and even shootings, stabbings, and murder, were regular features of plant life. Violence was not a freak occurrence or the product of a lone misfit in these plants — it was woven into the labor process, workplace culture, and the daily lives of workers.

The tension on set reverberates through what we see onscreen, as the interracial friendship and camaraderie between the three characters dissolves. Trying to get ahead together turns into disappointment, paranoia, and betrayal.

Alienated from their jobs, they no longer believe in their union, whose reps drone on about petitioning for vague ballot measures at meetings and neglect everyday workplace problems, who appear together with, and indistinguishable from, management. Locked into a narrow vision of masculinity that valorizes toughness and machismo, they cut themselves off from meaningful relationships with women, cheat on their wives, snort coke, and wonder what the point of it all is.

Fulfillment isn’t available on the job — when you try to take a shortcut to the big money, you lose the only thing of value: your friends.

Only as Bleak as Reality

Perhaps the film’s uncompromising bleakness has won it few friends. J. Hoberman, in a positive New York Times review of a recent Blue Collar screening, disputes Schrader’s contention that he made a Marxist film, calling it “less Marxist than Hobbesian,” a movie that states “collective action is futile.”

Similarly, labor historian Jefferson Cowie offers a mixed assessment of the film in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. In Cowie’s eyes, Blue Collar is a cynical dismissal of working-class solidarity by a New Left filmmaker uninterested in the achievements of the New Deal: “There are no avenues to liberation, just a crushing sense of hopelessness.”

He calls it anti-union, but then also anti–working class because it criticizes workers for turning on their union. He calls the plotline unrealistic. I disagree. My research demonstrates that corruption, crime, and violence were common aspects of plant life and auto unionism in the 1970s.

A particularly telling detail is the union president, played brilliantly as a leathery old warhorse by Harry Bellaver, expresses confidence that the thieves who burgled the union office would be caught because “the police owe us a favor.” Not only does this perfectly express the movie’s noir outlook that justice is unavailable, only power and connections count; it reflects the real-life collusion between, for example, Hamtramck Police and the UAW to attack the radical black workers of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, and police-union-corporation cooperation on issues of crime around auto plants.

Cowie misreads the film because it’s not the film he wants it to be. Which is strange, because the motif of his own book is the story of Dewey Burton, a real-life autoworker who over the course of the 1970s becomes more materialistic and conservative, less enamored of liberalism and the UAW, and ends up voting for Ronald Reagan. Cowie carps, “The working class is in the middle of meltdown” in Blue Collar, yet subtitles his own book “the last days of the working class.”

Given what was to come for autoworkers and the UAW, whose stature, reach, and power labor historian Toni Gilpin recently observed in The Long Deep Grudge, were utterly “built on sand,” Schrader’s diagnosis was not just realistic — it was, unfortunately, prescient.

While I don’t go as far as Hoberman and Cowie’s judgment that the film presents collective action as futile, it’s certainly not an optimistic perspective. But should it be? The film accurately reflects the era and the situations of autoworkers. So Blue Collar is really about how hard it is to get there, to try to come together to change your job. It’s a lot easier to chase sex, drugs, booze, or a quick score. Self-destruction in the face of alienation, competition, and material pressures seems to be actually one of the most important and relevant themes of capitalism, and few films dramatize it more effectively.

“Every time I get coked up like this I think I’ll never go back to the plant,” Keitel mutters after an all-night debauch. But it’s channeling frustrations into those excesses that make going back not only possible but inevitable.

In another scene, Pryor clashes with a supervisor, whose constant harassment of workers to keep the line moving is another authentic touch, and is dragged into the “green room” to hash it out with the supervisor and his union rep. Pryor wins the battle, but leaves still angry and frustrated. Nothing meaningful about his work has changed and it’s only a matter of time before something similar happens again.

Seething, he blows up at a coworker who congratulates him, before apologizing by exclaiming, “It ain’t even you I’m mad it!” It is a perfect distillation of how the pressures of the production process and the deflection of class conflict to keep that process moving overflow into lateral violence among coworkers.

In fact, film scholar Derek Nystrom — whose Hard Hats, Red Necks, and Macho Men is one of the finest studies of 1970s class and culture available — argues that where the film departs from realism it is in its unrealistic and utopian vision of a natural, deep social bond between black and white autoworkers. It’s a dramatic contrast to real factory culture, where blacks and whites were pitted against each other by management in job categories and the labor process, as Michael Omi has noted.

However, Nystrom observes, in its interracial vision, “Blue Collar posits the idea that the working class is automatically aligned due to their shared experience of economic oppression.” Unlike other 1970s films, many covered by Cowie, which posit the working class as default white and old and default racist, Blue Collar avoids this trap (still endemic in culture and politics today) largely by, in Nystrom’s words, “recognizing that the class is in fact not only white.” Would that today’s Beltway elites, for whom the working class is eternally white, male, culturally conservative, and mining coal, get the picture.

Film programmer Eddie Muller’s take on Blue Collar’s neglect is “there were critics at the time it came out who equated Blue Collar with The Grapes of Wrath. But . . . It was marketed as a Richard Pryor movie, don’t take it too seriously.” And sure, Pryor is funny in it. But he’s also fierce, vulnerable, angry, and unforgettable. We need more films like 1970s American cinema — those gritty, freewheeling slices of paranoia, disillusionment, navel-gazing, corruption, and rage. Films drawn at human scale, where the drama comes from characters dealing with actual real-life stuff like sexuality, relationships, political systems, and jobs. Films that confronted their times rather than escaping them.

As Pryor’s biographers David and Joe Henry conclude of the man’s comedy, “Richard Pryor wasn’t joking.” Neither is Schrader. In Blue Collar, he made a film of lacerating intensity, a film about work and workers that still matters today.