When he took on the job of directing Blue Collar in 1978, Paul Schrader had already made a name for himself as a screenwriter—most notably with Taxi Driver. However, he hadn’t made the transition to director yet, and Blue Collar was his first effort. It should be held up as one of the great directorial debuts, alongside films like Citizen Kane and Ivan’s Childhood to name just two. It’s also Schrader’s most overtly political work, and seems just as timely in the age of Trump as it was in the late 1970s.
The film is about a trio of working-class guys who have jobs at a car plant in the hub of the auto industry, Detroit, Michigan. During an after-work drinking session, Zeke (Richard Pryor) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) hatch a plan to rob their corrupt union. All three friends have money problems, and when Jerry (Harvey Keitel) finally comes around to the idea, they commit the robbery—but it’s a bust. However, while they come away without the cash they needed, they find some information on the union that could make their money worries go away.
Schrader was obviously a very angry young man when he made this film, and that was reflected in his other work, including Taxi Driver. He had an ultra-strict Calvinist upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a family that forbade him from seeing films until the age of 17. As soon as he got out from under their restrictions, a lovely affair with the medium developed, especially with the work of Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer, as reflected in his book Transcendental Style in Film. Throw that background together with the public upheaval that was everywhere during the ’60s and it’s no wonder that he would be drawn at times to radical stories, from his biopics on Mishima and Patty Hearst to the tale at the heart of Blue Collar, which very bluntly but truthfully tells how the corrupt rust-belt unions would do anything to control their members. even if it involved getting them to fight against one another. Schrader still has some of that radical left in him: he was recently visited by Homeland Security after writing a Facebook post suggesting that it might be a good idea to take up arms to fight Trump.
The performances from the three leads in Blue Collar are universally excellent and believable: they have a lived-in, world-weary quality that is somewhat reminiscent of Casey Affleck’s character in Manchester by the Sea, another rare Hollywood film that accurately tackles working-class life in the mid-west (or anywhere, for that matter.) It is somewhat shocking to find out that the three principal actors absolutely despised each other, and Pryor especially hated Schrader, who pulled a gun on him in what was most likely a cocaine-fueled rage. However, given the nature of how the story unfolds, it probably helped their performances as they had an instant conflict with one another that boils over onscreen.
Blue Collar’s relevance in today’s political climate is due to the fact that these are the exact people who got Trump elected. They would’ve voted for Bernie Sanders without batting an eyelash, but Hillary Clinton represented the status quo/the establishment and somehow they thought Trump was a change, a protest to how the unions, the government, their bosses, etc., have treated them. They threw a spanner into the political establishment that will boomerang back just like the misguided robbery in Blue Collar—it’s just a shame that they bought into the Cheeto-in-Chief’s lies, including a promise to bring the greatly diminished auto industry back to Michigan, which will end up being a mess for a far larger group.
The film’s one false move may be the final moment, where Smokey delivers a narrative: “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.” That’s as blunt as you can get, but after witnessing it all first-hand the voiceover seems a little unnecessary. Schrader may have thought the message would’ve gone over the heads of “dumb” American audiences, and to an extent it did—the film was sold as a Richard Pryor comedy, not as the hard-hitting drama it actually was, although there certainly is humour within the film. It’s worth noting that Schrader co-wrote the film with his brother Leonard, who a couple years later co-directed one of the angriest documentaries about violence and the social circumstances behind why people turn violent, The Killing of America.
The disc that Indicator has put together for this re-release is next-level stuff even for them. The long out of print Schrader commentary that previously was only available on the US release, initially recorded for the Anchor Bay release, is here. Schrader’s NFT talk from 1982 supplies an alternative commentary track. The longest non-audio feature in an excellent interview with the director for the Channel 4 “Visions” program, available in an uncut and broadcast versions. It’s very interesting to hear him talk about the then-changing landscape of forms of distribution—when I interviewed him for the release of Dog Eat Dog, he was complaining about how it was all about what’s number one on VOD on the first weekend now. Oh, how the future of film distribution was far more optimistic in 1982…
The next major feature is an excellent appreciation by Keith Gordon, who is both a very fine filmmaker in his own right (Mother Night) but also a bonafide fan of the Indicator series. Finally, the trailer and a stills gallery are included, plus a mammoth 60-page booklet that includes a new essay on the film and a bunch of interviews with Schrader.