Richard Pryor Stuns in Poignant Dramatic Role.
DIRECTED BY PAUL SCHRADER/1978
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: DECEMBER 10, 2019/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Jarring in its bluntness, Paul Schrader’s 1978 directorial debut Blue Collar arrived to Blu-ray in a moment just before the world it depicts so epically broke. Released in December of 2019, this “special edition” release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics just barely prefigured the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and the later explosion of public outrage in the face of unchecked police brutality towards racial minorities. Looking at Blue Collar now, wherein two of the three central characters are African Americans of limited recourse, the realities of the current moment can’t help but powerfully reverberate.
The film stars then-red-hot super-comedian Richard Pryor in a dramatic role that, while not unprecedented (he went unfunny in Lady Sings the Blues six years earlier), is nevertheless something of a landmark in his soaring career. He plays Zeke Brown, just another line worker at the Ford plant in Detroit in a film that’s all about line workers at the plant in Detroit. Zeke can’t catch a break in life and is desperate for a way to clear up his financial and social strife.
Not everything he and his buddies (played by nearly-equally volcanic actors Harvey Keitel as Jerry and Yaphet Kotto as Smokey) do is legal (to put it mildly), but when the bottom drops out, it is communicated that his options are fewer than your average white citizen. At one point, he gives very clear voice to the fact that he cannot rely on police to protect or even listen to him. His character is one of many “burdens upon society”, made daily to disappear into the cavernous auto factory to ingloriously assemble cars. At the end of the day, he hits the nearby watering hole to blow off steam, then staggers home, forgotten. But Zeke and his friends have other plans…
A “grown-up movie” if there ever was one, Blue Collar strikes an incendiary tone right from its very core. Amid the spark-attacked husks of pressed metal that swing by in the impersonal rust-hued expanse of the factory, we see occasional heads and arms, adorned with grease and sweat, doing their repetitive tasks for not enough money. (The real tragedy would come years later, when several of the dozen or so auto manufacturing plants in Detroit would close, striking a crippling blow to the Motor City). When the film’s main characters are hit with crippling financial blows such as a large bill for back-taxes and braces for a child’s crooked teeth, they look to the vault of their less-than-supportive Union Hall.
The crime element of Blue Collar is a vital component, yet it strangely does not define the film. (One would not likely sort this Blu-ray onto a shelf of “Crime Films”). The heist itself, occurring near the midpoint of the story, is as close as Schrader gets to playing anything for levity. Blue Collar then, however, reroutes the dynamics of Zeke, Jerry and Smokey in shattering ways. Once again as a screenwriter and for the first time as a director, Schrader is skewering the age-old adage that “crime does not pay” while also in a fundamental way validating it.
In this sense, the otherwise intrinsically grown-up Blue Collar belongs right alongside of the more wide-eyed Hollywood-fueled homages and visions of his “movie brat” contemporaries. (Scorsese with Taxi Driver; De Palma with Obsession [both of which Schrader wrote]; Spielberg with Close Encounters of the Third Kind). That, however, may be the only thoroughly connective aspect of Schrader’s own edgier and more mature (and also more hit & miss) filmography with that of his peer group. To this day, as the “movie brats” of the mid-1970s have gone on to shape the industry, he remains an uneasy and frequent voice of dissent.
Speaking of Schrader’s voice, it can be heard quite clearly on the disc’s audio commentary track, wherein he’s interviewed by journalist Maitland McDonagh. Recorded sometime in the late 1990s, Schrader spares few details on the painful strife that colored the day-to-day making of Blue Collar. Between his own overconfidence and lack of experience, and his particularly volatile core cast (each of whom he confesses to telling duplicitously that they’d be the star of this ensemble picture), he tells of shooting days abruptly ending when Richard Pryor refused to return to the set. The three leads hated one another and had to be actively managed in between takes in order to prevent physical altercations, which weren’t always avoided. Violence and distrust palpably permeate every level of Blue Collar. This unthinkably bad atmosphere no doubt contributed to that.
Meanwhile, Schrader’s free use of the N-word (never as name calling but strictly in retellings and descriptions 1970s-specific attitudes) likely has Kino Lorber execs more grateful than ever for the routine text disclaimer that appears on every Blu-ray with a commentary, stating that the opinions and words of the commentators are strictly their own, and not necessarily the opinion of the label proper. Most of the time, there’s little actual need for such covering of one’s own butt. But in this case, the discomfort level is rather high. To Kino’s credit, however, it let Schrader’s words stand as his own, unaltered. Hopefully the Paul Schrader of today would approach this commentary recording session differently.
Kino Lorber Studio Classic’s Blu-ray of Blue Collar, beautiful in its working-man’s patina, is a keeper. A flawed film in places (Schrader freely admits so much), it nevertheless stands as a living dramatization of the callousing grind that the American Dream for many has become. The film is a more than notable opening salvo of a directorial career that, while riddled with twists and turns and dips and dives, continues to surprise us with a steady flow of hard-won and uncompromisingly topical productions.