Three Detroit auto workers (played by Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and Richard Pryor) are fed up.
It’s not just that management is constantly overworking them and trying to cheat them out of their money. That’s what management does, after all. What really upsets them is that their union is not doing anything to help. While the head of the union is getting rich off of their dues and spending time at the White House, Keitel is struggling to pay for his daughter’s braces, Kotto is in debt to a loan shark, and Pryor is lying to the IRS about the number of children that he has. (When a social worker shows up unexpectedly, Pryor’s wife recruits neighborhood children to pretend to be their’s.) Kotto, Pryor, and Keitel plot to rob the union but instead, they just discover evidence of the union’s ties to the mob. The union bosses will do anything to keep that information from being revealed, from trying to turn the friends against one another to committing murder.
Blue Collar was the directorial debut of screenwriter Paul Schrader. Schrader has said that the three main cast members did not get along during the filming, with Richard Pryor apparently bringing a gun to the set and announcing that there was no way he was going to do more than three takes of any scene. The tension between the lead actors is visible in the film, with all three of them giving edgy and angry performances. That anger is appropriate because Blue Collar is one of the few films to try to honestly tackle what it’s like to be a member of the “working class” in America. While management is presented as being a bunch of clowns, Blue Collar reserves its greatest fury for the corrupt union bosses who claim to represent the workers but who, instead, are just exploiting them. The characters in Blue Collar are pissed off because they know that nobody’s got their back. To both management and the union, the workers are worth less than the cars that they spend all day putting together and the money that can be subtracted from all their already meager pay checks.
Since it’s a Paul Schrader film from 1978, the action in Blue Collar does come to a halt, 40 minutes in, for a cocaine-fueled orgy that feels out of place. While Keitel and especially Kotto give believable performances, Pryor sometimes seems to be struggling to keep up. Still, flaws and all, Blue Collar has a raw and authentic feel to it, something that few other movies about the working class have been able to capture. Perhaps because it never sentimentalizes its characters or their situation, Blue Collar was not a box office success but it has stood the test of time better than many of the other films that were released that same year. Sadly overlooked, Blue Collar is a classic American movie.