Blue Collar (1978)

Directed by Paul Schrader

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“Everything they do is to keep us in our place.”

Underpaid, poorly represented and fed up, three Detroit auto workers hatch a plan to rob a safe at union headquarters.  For Zeke (Richard Pryor), Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) and Jerry (Harvey Keitel), this is a last ditch effort.

Zeke owes the IRS a couple thousand dollars, Jerry can’t afford the braces his daughter needs, and Smokey owes money to a loan shark.  They attend union meetings and call for change, but their calls go unheard or ignored.  While they may understand that the factory wants to treat them like cattle, it’s even more maddening that their union would do the same.

The three men have it in mind that the union is in bed with the factory managers.  The ones who suffer are the workers, the ones at the bottom.  We watch as the workers duke it out in the trenches, which is where the above quote, delivered by Smokey, comes from.

“That’s exactly what the company wants – to keep you on their line. They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white – EVERYBODY to keep us in our place.”

It’s this realization that compels the men to work together to rob the safe at around the midpoint of the film.  Though the story is built around this robbery, Blue Collar is hardly a heist film.  Yes, they do ‘punch up,’ organizing a robbery to stick it to the man, in a way, but most of the film, the most noteworthy aspects, deal with the fallout to their actions.

First, they find only a few hundred dollars in a safe believed to have thousands, and soon the union reports to the media that they lost over $20,000, a bold lie which would net them money from the insurance company.

Second, Zeke also stole a notebook that contains evidence of illegal dealings between the union and local banks, taking out loans with a suspiciously higher interest rate.  The point here is that he has evidence of the union’s illegal actions, and they will most definitely want that notebook back.

What follows is a series of sometimes tragic, certainly bleak consequences to their actions.  Despite what happens, the characters are not always passive.  Zeke, for example, takes a few proactive steps to take a union deal that would put him squarely within the system which before refused to help him.

It’s in this fallout that, echoing the earlier quote, the characters are again pitted against each other.  It’s this scuffle that protects the ones who really need to be held accountable.  Because the powers that be have money, they can silence certain voices, pressure others into submission or even go a step further.

Beyond Smokey’s slam poetry about the power struggle within and beneath the workers’ union, there is another powerful moment between Zeke and Jerry, in regards to the walls closing in after their robbery.

Zeke takes a job which, in Jerry’s eyes, will put him under the thumb of the union.  He sees it as a cop out, a betrayal of everything they fought for.  Jerry operates with a certain code, a mindset that his whiteness affords him.  Sure, he’s struggling financially too, but as Zeke points out, he has more opportunities.  For Zeke, a black man whose skin color is pointed out to him on several occasions, this may be the only opportunity he has.

“I got one chance, and I’m gonna take it.  I’m black… the police ain’t gonna protect me.  Six months after this fucking thing is over, I’ll end right back where I started from, living in some ghetto, up to my black ass in bills… if I gotta kiss ass, I’m gonna pick the ass I want to kiss.”

It’s a striking moment that rips right through any comic facade the story may have initially been hiding behind.  While the film is nothing but a drama, there are plenty of moments played for a chuckle during the film, such as when Zeke has his wife gather neighborhood children to pretend to be their own when an IRS agent checks in or when the workers use absurd disguises during the break in.

There is some to laugh at, but this only makes the bitter end that much more discomforting.  The final note of Blue Collar demonstrates how no progress was made.  Our characters may have experienced some growth, some kind of state change, but their struggle will remain constant.

Zeke joins the union, and Jerry, initially hung up on his own idealism, turns the evidence over to the FBI once he realizes just how in danger his life is.  Both men make choices out of necessity, and the film ends with them at each other’s throats.  They ‘win’ insofar as they protect themselves, but they lose something at the same time.

Now, despite the muted joy of the two characters’ decisions, at least they have a somewhat active role in it.  That can’t be said for Smokey, who dies in a work accident very clearly meant to be deliberate, a way of silencing the man who couldn’t be silenced.  It’s a long sequence in which he is suffocated inside the room where a new car is being spray painted.  Just after we watch him die, we cut to a shot of the Goodyear billboard detailing the number of cars built that year.  It ticks up every second or two, and Smokey’s death suddenly makes this image very sinister.  In our minds we associate each car with a dead body, and the sign now tracks the number of lives lost just to produce another road-clogging vehicle.  It has something to do with capitalism and everything to do with the futility of punching up for a certain level of workers.

So Blue Collar is a tragic story that has a lot to say about the state of the world.  The workers’ union is in theory there for the workers, to give them certain rights they weren’t always afforded.  But here we see the union as the central antagonist, the force working to keep the workers in the trenches.  It’s like suntan lotion that makes your skin easier to burn.

Lastly, this from Doyle Greene’s “The American Worker on Film: A Critical History, 1909-1999,” on page 136:

“…a shot of Jerry’s bedroom shows the wall decorated with a black velvet painting: a triptych of JFK in profile, the White House, and the U.S. Capitol.  Jerry’s relationship to the myths of the Democratic Party and the State as the protectorate of the worker and organized labor is reduced to a kitsch signifier of ideological faith.”

Up Next: Where Is My Friend’s House? (1987), The Breaking Point (1950), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

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