In honor of Black History Month, we will take a look back at significant, rarely-seen Black films that we think deserve to be re-introduced to contemporary audiences. Today’s film is the 1978 crime drama, Blue Collar.
The film is both a critique of union practices and an examination of life in a working-class Rust Belt enclave. It tells the story of a trio of Detroit auto workers, two black, Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor) and Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto), and one white, Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) who are fed up with mistreatment at the hands of both management and union brass. Coupled with financial hardships on each man’s end, the trio hatch a plan to rob a safe at union headquarters.
They commit the caper but find only a few scant bills in the process. More importantly, they also come away with a ledger which contains evidence of the union’s illegal loan operation and ties to organized crime syndicates. They attempt to blackmail the union with the information but the union retaliates strongly and begins to turn the tables on the three friends. A suspicious accident at the plant results in Smokey’s death.
A federal agent attempts to coerce Jerry into informing on the union’s corruption, which could make him enemies with his co-workers as well as the union bosses. At the same time, corrupt union bosses try to get Zeke to work for them. By the end, once close friends, Jerry and Zeke turn against each another.
While the action in front of the camera was intense, what transpired behind the scenes would become the stuff of legends.
Schrader, who was at the time a renowned screenwriter for his work on Taxi Driver, recalls the shooting as a very difficult one because of the artistic and personal tension between himself and the actors as well as between the stars themselves. The three main actors didn’t get along and were constantly fighting throughout the shoot. The tension became so great that at one point Pryor (supposedly in a drug-fueled rage) pointed a gun at Schrader and told him that there was “no way” he was ever going to do more than three takes for a scene, causing him to suffer an on-set mental breakdown, which made him seriously reconsider his career.
But Schrader would get the last laugh. He would continue to work on acclaimed projects, including writing or co-writing screenplays for the Martin Scorsese classics Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Schrader has directed 18 feature films, including his 1982 remake of the horror classic Cat People, and critically acclaimed dramas American Gigolo, Affliction, Auto Focus, as well as The Canyons.
Check out a trailer from the classic film below: