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My Pops made cars. From 1974 to 2008, he was a member of the UAW. Despite all the hardships I saw during his tenure, strikes and layoffs and plant closings, I never once heard him complain about working on cars. In fact, my Pops loves cars, and loved his job so much that I secretly envied him. If only I could be so enamored of my chosen profession. Sometimes I just call him, when I know good and well what the problem is with my car, just to listen to the enthusiasm in his voice when he tells me what is wrong.
When Blue Collar came out in 1978, my parents went to the drive-in to see it. I sat in the back seat watching whatever parts they’d let me watch. When something raunchy occurred, my folks put their hands in front of my line of sight. Whenever I tried to get out of the way, their hands would follow me. Not once did they ever turn around to see where I was; their hands were like magnets and my face was the refrigerator. This happened on more than one movie my parents and I attended at the drive-in. Hal Ashby should have sued them for what their hands did to Shampoo.
Universal billed Blue Collar as a comedy, which contributed to its failure at the box office. Pictures of a wild-eyed Richard Pryor stared from the poster. Pryor was fresh off his prior success for Universal, Which Way Is Up?, so it’s understandable they wanted to capitalize. However, Universal sold the wrong impression. Blue Collar has its funny moments, but it is no comedy. That painful place from whence Pryor’s comic genius originates is on full display here, but Pryor refuses to make it easy for us to digest. He can joke around with his pain in his standup; after all he’s earned it. But Pryor respects the framework of drama here, allowing us to feel the desperation his character can barely contain. It’s funny for us in his standup, because we enjoy the sense of schadenfreude Pryor endorses with his delivery. In Blue Collar, Pryor makes us empathize to the point of excruciating pain. We may never go running down Sunset Boulevard on fire, with winos trying to light cigarettes on us, but we all know what it’s like to struggle to pay the bills, and how it feels to be helpless at work against authority.
Blue Collar marks Paul Schrader’s directorial debut. Working from a script by him and his brother Leonard, Schrader aims for the appropriate mise-en-scene. Most of Blue Collar takes place at the auto plant and at the local bar where the assembly line workers blow off steam. Pops explained to my Mom the different machines that appear in the opening credits of Blue Collar. He had worked on several different sections of the line during his tenure. During 1978, he put doors on the cars. Pryor works on windshields. His best buds Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto also work on the line.
While preparing to leave for the day, Pryor cuts his hand on his locker. This isn’t the first time—he’s been complaining to the union guys about it for months. It seems like a simple fix, a change of door perhaps, but the union has more pressing things on their mind. At the union meeting, Pryor unleashes a verbal tirade that sounds a lot like his comedy routines, except more brutal. It’s a funny scene designed to get the audience to cheer at seeing someone tell the big shots off. Pryor is also quite funny, as are his co-stars, when they’re just sitting around chewing the fat or bitching about their women. Pryor has fewer kids than he claims on his taxes, but he can barely afford them. Kotto is just a big ho, screwing multiple women at once and having a grand time being unattached. Keitel has a daughter who needs that staple of all expense draining weights on parents’ wallets, braces. I needed them too, or so my parents were told. I never got them. Keitel’s kid hurts herself by wiring paper clips on her teeth to convince her classmates her parents can afford braces.
During one of Pryor’s numerous visits to the union rep’s office, he notices a safe in the room. The rep, played by Harry Bellaver from No Way Out, feeds him a bunch of bullshit, and during the course of being bullshitted, Pryor gets the bright idea to hit it, along with his buddies, in order to obtain some quick cash. He needs it because the IRS finally figured out that his character, Zeke Brown, doesn’t have children named Ray Charles Brown, Stevie Wonder Brown, Gale Sayers Brown, and O.J. Brown (if only Schrader knew the coincidence of that one). The IRS also caught on to all his under-the-table work as a house painter, and they want their money. None of this is doable on an auto worker’s paycheck, though my Pops somehow managed to raise five of us on one.
Keitel and Kotto agree to the heist, and Pryor gets info on safe cracking from a guy he knows. Since Blue Collar is not a heist movie, the movie assumes we know the break-in will go with minimal hitch. That minimal hitch is the night watchman who comes in to check on things. The gang knocks him unconscious after surprising them with their weird disguises. Later, the assaulted night watchman says the trio were “like an Oreo cookie.” As the Oreo Gang makes the papers, the union lies and says they have stolen far more money than the safe contained.
At first glance, the safe yields just about the same results as Al Capone’s vaults did for Geraldo. After checking the paperwork the trio obtains, they discover that the union has been engaging in some Capone-like activities to cook the books. Kotto gives a powerful speech about blackmailing the union, as the reps will most certainly want the evidence back. Pryor just wants to get union steward Clarence Hill (Lane Smith) kicked out, but Kotto convinces him that they can get the union to pay the money they say was stolen--$10,000. They sorely underestimate their enemy.
Blue Collar is appropriately named, as the film is about class. Even though we don’t have a caste system here in America, we do practice both racial and class discrimination. Schrader’s decision to make his main characters 2/3rds Black is unprecedented. Usually the Black character is the token. Despite the presence of Ed Begley Jr. as a naïve union guy, Keitel hangs out primarily with Kotto and Pryor. He feels just as comfortable with them as he’d feel if they were White; they’re all in the same boat, and they all identify with that more than they do skin color. Struggle brings people together, and even though Schrader tightens the screws on the characters’ situation until it is hopeless, this statement is made because Schrader shows you the flip side of the coin: Fear segregates people.
The union knows who stole the records, and their benefactors decide to make a statement by conducting what amounts to a social experiment. First, they go after the more easily pliable of the three. Pryor needs the money more than Keitel, and by virtue of him feeling trod upon more than the others, the union decides to offer him a promotion. They get rid of Clarence Hill and replace him with Pryor. By their rationale, the power will go to Pryor’s head and he will alienate himself from Keitel. Pryor offers up the book of incriminating information in exchange for the safety of Kotto and Keitel. Harry Bellaver promises him things will be OK.
Next, they get rid of the brawn: a hit is put on Kotto, the strongest member of the team. This is after Kotto defends Keitel’s family from the union’s hoods. Kotto, a former prisoner and alleged murderer, beats the union’s goons with a baseball bat, then threatens to go public with all he knows. For his troubles, he is murdered by a paint machine that has been tampered with by persons unknown. My Pops objected to this scene, not because it’s tragic, but because he thought Kotto incredulously violated his training by removing his mask. As the scene unfolded, my Pops expressed his agitation and his terror simultaneously; when you work with hazardous equipment, you are always aware of the worst case scenarios, hoping that you’ll never bear witness to, nor become a victim of, their unrestrained fury.
Even after the murder, and an angry confrontation with Bellaver, Pryor becomes more willing to do the union’s bidding, either as an attempt at gratitude or a power play to make more changes to the union, changes that will never come. Pryor’s demeanor, physical and verbal characteristics all change once he’s in the loop. Now that he’s one of them, he forgets what it was like to be under their heels. The ironic thing is, the illusion of inclusion blinds Pryor. He’s still no different to the union than he was before, except now he owes them, and the folks pulling the strings know how to make a debtor dance.
Keitel feels betrayed. He’s lost both friends, one to death and the other to the egomania that hides Pryor’s desperation. Pryor’s comedy was quick to show that, under his bluster (“I’m MACHO MAN!! I don’t care if you come or not, because I’m MACHO MAN!!”) lived a worried and unconfident man. In Blue Collar, Pryor shows you this guy in all his terrified glory. When Keitel tries to get Pryor to expose the union, then discovers that Pryor gave the union back the incriminating material, he’s pissed off. Pryor explains his logic in a searing speech:
“Jerry, with this union rep job, it’s a club in my hand. Jerry, you’re my friend, but you’re thinking White. It means that you got more chances than I got, Jerry. You always gonna have more chances than me. I got one chance, and I’m going to take it. I’m Black, Jerry. The police ain’t gonna protect me…if I gotta kiss ass, I’m going to pick the ass I wanna kiss, and it ain’t gonna be the muthafuckin’ police, because all they gonna do is shit in my face.”
Pryor offers Keitel a foreman job. He doesn’t want to take it, nor does he want to turn stoolie to an FBI agent for fear that he too will eventually be executed by the union. His fears are justified, but the hit is a failure, and Keitel decides to spill all the beans. When he returns to the plant, FBI man in tow, his former workers turn on him, including Pryor who may or may not have been in cahoots with the attempted hit. The former friends clash as the film violently ends in a freeze frame.
Since we’ve been so invested in these three characters, Schrader’s ending is as shocking as it is merciful. He spares us the gruesome outcome of Pryor and Keitel’s confrontation. The most controversial aspect of Blue Collar’s ending is Keitel and Pryor sinking to the depths of racial epithet before clashing. I’ve read reviews that found it unconvincing, and just a ploy for shock value. My interpretation is that these two are trying to hurt each other the worst way they can, and for someone who once was so close, hurling out hurtful words is a natural human reaction to being stung by a loved one. This is why most divorces are so acrimonious. To volley as much hate as Keitel and Pryor have for each other by film’s end, and for the first time in the film, indicates that they must have really loved and trusted each other before that robbery threw them into the cogs of a corrupt machine they were unwise to try to override.
Schrader may have gotten the atmosphere of an auto plant right, but he had no idea how to deal with his actors. Telling each of them they were the star caused all three egos to inflate to near bursting. Schrader’s long takes in the film are more necessity than choice, as the legend has it that the three actors occasionally came to blows during the shoot. Since the three have such lovely chemistry together in their scenes, it’s a testament to the acting of all involved. So, for those who were unconvinced by the film’s final sequence, it may be that Keitel and Pryor weren’t play-acting their anger toward one another.
Blue Collar was a flop, partially due to Universal’s mismarketing, and that’s a shame. For those who think Pryor was just a comedian, this is a revelation of a performance for him. Keitel and Kotto are also quite good, but Pryor has the hardest role to play. Like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, the director found a way to channel the anger beneath the surface of the comedian’s routine, bringing it up unfiltered by the comic’s defense mechanism of humor.
The one other thing Blue Collar points out, and this is especially timely today with our pals at the Tea Party and the GOP, is this: Divide and conquer. That’s the term Roger Ebert uses in his review. If poor Whites and poor minorities realized they were victimized by the same system, and banded together, that system would collapse. Fear keeps that system together, and in power. What poor farmer gives a fuck about the estate tax? Why would Pryor care about protecting the union? Just before the credits, Schrader replays a key scene of Kotto’s dialogue from earlier in the film.
“They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.”
Divide and conquer. It makes Blue Collar seem even more timely now, and just as brutal as it was when it was released.