Men, black and white, working on an automobile assembly line. The sound of equipment screeching and the sight of sparks flying. In the opening scenes of this compelling film, the cameral prowls up and down the working area of the plant while a gut churning rock 'n' roll soundtrack hammers into our consciousness the repetitiveness and monotony of such labor. This raw energy in the beginning of Blue Collar continues to tick away like a time bomb until the film's final freeze shot and the closing credits.
Every once in a while a film comes along which plugs into our psyches and emotions at and deeper level than have other less bold entertainment. It takes us to places we've never been before and by its intensity wins our hearts and minds. Blue Collar is a vulgar movie filled with profanity and graphic sex. But at its sensitive center there is a morally provocative core. The subject matter is depressing and the conclusion is a downer. But our spirits are raised by the authentic look and feel of the movie, the outstanding performances, and its cohesive vision. Blue Collar is a thoroughly realized piece of cinematic art.
Zeke, an assembly line laborer, is an angry and unhappy man. He finds some respite from the drudgery of the day at Little Joe's Bar where he meets his best friends Jerry Bartowski, a welder, and Smokey Jones, a utility man. All three feel the grinding, oppressive, and entrapping quality of their work. They are members of the union. But instead of giving them a sense of pride and solidarity, the union treats them the same way their bosses do as children.
For six months Zeke has petitioned Clarence Hill, the shop steward, to get his locker fixed. And there has been no action. At a union meeting, he explodes noting that the term "plan" is just another word for "plantation." Zeke threatens to take over Hill's position and give the workers some real representation.
Others feel the same frustration the sense that everything is conspiring against them. One worker repeatedly loses money to a broken soda machine. Enraged by the situation of being ripped off by management and spied upon by the plant foreman, he vents his anger on the machine. He drives a forklift into it and then hammers it to pieces. The worker is laid off for two weeks.
An evening away from their wives with Smokey and some prostitutes, Zeke and Jerry lament their status always being broke. Zeke has just been ordered by the Internal Revenue Service to pay $2000 for lying on his income tax statement; Jerry needs some money to pay for his daughter's braces; and Smokey is under the gun to pay off a loan shark. They decide to hit the union safe and grab what really belongs to them
The caper opens their eyes to more than they expected. The take is only $600 but the unscrupulous union bosses file an insurance claim for $10,000. The threesome also discover a notebook detailing illegal union loans at exorbitant interest rates. They decide to blackmail the corrupt union boss Eddie "Knuckles" Johnson. In doing so they plunge themselves into very deep trouble.
Screenwriter Paul Schrader consistently laces his creations with a kind of moral indignation. Taxi Driver, Obsession, Rolling Thunder, and now Blue Collar are all richly textured studies of ethical issues. The film, co-written with Leonard Schrader and suggested by source material by Sydney A. Glass, also marks his debut as a director. It is an unqualified triumph. The acting in Blue Collar is dramatic dynamite. Richard Pryor, who showed signs of his ability to move beyond comedy in Which Way Is Up? and Greased Lightning, comes across with a first class performance as Zeke, an impatient, flashy, and power hungry worker. If Zeke is all lightning, Yaphet Kotto as Smokey, a streetwise and charismatic dude, is all thunder. His is a towering presence on the screen. And Harvey Keitel as Jerry is completely engaging. Also good in minor roles are Cliff De Young as an FBI agent trying to get some dope on the illegal activities of the union, Lane Smith as the smooth shop steward, Harry Bellaver as Eddie "Knuckles" Johnson, Borah Silver as the tough plant foreman and Lucy Saroyan and Chip Fields as Jerry and Zeke's wives.
Over the past few years, several important books have charted the dissatisfaction, humiliation, and sad plight of America's blue collar workers. This film translates those abstractions into flesh-and-blood realities. The nature and meaning of work is one of the central moral issues of this decade and Blue Collar is the first movie to deal with the troubling problem in a credible and vigorous way.
It strikes out against the most reprehensible assumption of present day industrial engineering; the belief that workers are sneaky, underhanded, and lazy. As a result of this evaluation, they are shamefully treated, exploited not only by management but also by the union. Their daily existence is a bitter struggle not just to make ends meet but to assert their own worth in an environment where quantitative values (productivity) are ranked over qualitative values (human worth)
In Barbara Gordon's book All the Livelong Day, a bitter worker complains: "The system stinks and there doesn't seem to be any way out." In a section of Studs Terkel's very popular volume Working, a woman editor remarks: "Most of us, like the assembly line work, have jobs that are too small for our spirit." Blue Collar does not tell us how to break out of the plantations we know too well. But it does give us a vivid sense of the problems and pitfalls facing those who try.