By most accounts, the 1970s were a good time to be in Hollywood. Besides injecting the gerontocratic order of the major movie studios with a heady dose of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the decade also ushered in the New Hollywood, a much ballyhooed era in which a cadre of precocious, ambitious and obdurate filmmakers were given carte blanche to make virtually any movie they wanted.
Indebted to the Modernist cinema that had been emanating from Europe throughout the ‘60s, many in this youth movement emulated the grandiose cultural statements and obliquely confessional dramas of the French New Wave. Others aped the example of neorealism, seeking to capture the “real” America of social tensions, crumbling infrastructure and urban anomie.
Paul Schrader did both. While he would later mount such disparate projects as the lascivious Cat People (1942) remake and the magniloquent artist’s biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Schrader’s best work remains his debut, Blue Collar, a scathing exposé of corruption within a Detroit autoworkers union.
Blue Collar centers around a trio of disgruntled GM employees and union men, one white (Harvey Keitel) and two African American (Yaphet Kotto and comedian Richard Pryor, playing drastically against type as a beleaguered family man). Weary of being hassled by their bosses and abused by their labor rep, the trio hatches an ill-advised plan to rob union headquarters.
The heist yields little money. What the men do unearth, however, is a register detailing all of the union’s illicit financial dealings. Hoping to exploit this rarified opportunity to put one over on The Man, they attempt to blackmail their superiors who, it turns out, are of a much more malicious ilk than previously realized. By the film’s conclusion, one of the men is dead, and simmering racial tensions have turned the other two against one another.
Even with its overt seriousness, Blue Collar was primarily a Richard Pryor show. Beginning the film as a foul-mouthed goofball, his character gradually transmutes into a resolute sellout, bent on protecting himself and his family from the wrath of white power and the vicissitudes of poverty. In times of crisis, racial identity reigns supreme.
As one of the men grouses following a night of cocaine-fueled debauchery, “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.”
Released by Universal Studios in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, Schrader’s film is imbued with the paranoia of its era. Schrader structures the narrative as a potboiler, suggesting lethal workplace accidents as invisibly orchestrated atrocities and sending armed thugs after his three protagonists.
The characters in Blue Collar are not merely trapped by economic circumstance; the powers that be are actively conspiring against them.
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Schrader grew up adjacent to the mean streets and industrial desolation of Detroit. His family was of well-to-do, highly conservative Protestant stock, and Schrader himself led a constricted, isolated childhood (by his own testament, he did not see a film until he was 17).
As a result, much of his work traffics in titillating – but often naïve – moral depravity. Indeed, even the working class radicalism of Blue Collar seems almost sedate compared to more morbid Schrader fare like the domestic drama Affliction and Auto-Focus, his portrait of TV matinee idol Bob Crane as a handsome prig and insufferable sex addict.
Blue Collar’s release did, however, dovetail perfectly with the decline of the American auto industry in the late 1970’s, the result of a decade-long oil shortage and the opening of competitive markets in Asia.
Many factories closed shop and the once thriving Detroit began to steadily hemorrhage money and people, leaving many of those who remained without jobs and without opportunity. Unemployment in the city, which recently filed for bankruptcy, now hovers above 20 percent.
Thus the urgency in Blue Collar has scarcely dissipated. The film, however, is itself an artifact of a time when Hollywood studios facilitated profit, activism and creative freedom without caveat. Unlike Detroit, tinsel town today doesn’t need a handout – just a different philosophy.