Blue Collar (film)

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Blue Collar
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPaul Schrader
Produced byDon Guest
Written byPaul Schrader
Leonard Schrader
Based onan article by
Sydney A. Glass
StarringRichard Pryor
Harvey Keitel
Yaphet Kotto
Music byJack Nitzsche
CinematographyBobby Byrne
Edited byTom Rolf
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • February 10, 1978 (1978-02-10)
Running time
114 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.7 million[1]
Box office$6.5 million[2]

Blue Collar is a 1978 American crime drama film directed by Paul Schrader, in his directorial debut. It was written by Schrader and his brother Leonard, and stars Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto.[3] The film is both a critique of union practices and an examination of life in a working-class Rust Belt enclave. Although it has minimal comic elements provided by Pryor, it is mostly dramatic.

Schrader, who was at the time a renowned screenwriter for his work on Taxi Driver (1976), recalls the shooting as a very difficult one because of the artistic and personal tensions between himself and the actors (as well as between the stars themselves); also stating that it was the only occasion he suffered an on-set mental breakdown, which made him seriously reconsider his career.[4]

The film was shot in Detroit and Kalamazoo, Michigan.


A trio of Detroit auto workers, two black—Zeke Brown (Pryor) and Smokey James (Kotto)—and one white— Polish-American Jerry Bartowski (Keitel)—are fed up with mistreatment at the hands of both management and union brass. Smokey is in debt to a loan shark, Jerry works a second job to get by and finds himself unable to pay for the dental treatment that his daughter needs, and Zeke cheats money out of the IRS in order to improve his family’s income.[5]

Coupled with the 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, which Zeke and Jerry realize was a murder coordinated by the union bosses in retaliation for the trio's blackmail.

A federal agent attempts to coerce Jerry into informing on the union's corruption, which would make him an adversary of his co-workers as well as the union bosses. At the same time, corrupt union bosses succeed in coopting Zeke to work for them with promises of upward mobility and increased remuneration. Zeke, happy with his new duties and higher pay, pragmatically prescinds from seeking justice for Smokey's murder, as it would jeopardize his newfound standing within the ranks of the union. Jerry attempts to convince Zeke to take steps to avenge Smokey's death, but Zeke rebukes him, telling Jerry that nothing will bring Smokey back and that they should just move forward. Disgusted with Zeke's capitulation, Jerry decides to cooperate with investigative authorities. In the end, Zeke confronts Jerry, as Jerry enters the plant with federal agents. Once friends, Jerry and Zeke now turn on each other, and attack each other, confirming the prescient earlier narrative that union corruption divides workers against one another.



The film was shot on location at the Checker plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan and at locales around Detroit, including the Ford River Rouge Complex on the city's southwest side and the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle.

The three main actors didn't get along and were constantly fighting throughout the shoot. The tension became so great that at one point Richard 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, an incident which may have caused Schrader a nervous breakdown.[4]

Jack Nitzsche's blues-flavored score includes "Hard Workin' Man", a collaboration with Captain Beefheart.[6]


Blue Collar was universally praised by critics. The film holds a 100% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.[7] Both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel especially lauded the film. Ebert awarded the film four stars[8] and Siskel placed the film fourth on his list of the ten best of 1978.[9]

Filmmaker Spike Lee included the film on his essential film list entitled List of Films All Aspiring Filmmakers Must See.[10]

In his autobiography Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen names Blue Collar and Taxi Driver as two of his favorite films from the 1970s.[11]


  1. ^ Writing His Way to the Top Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 06 Apr 1977: e20
  2. ^ "Blue Collar Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo.
  3. ^ "Blue Collar". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
  4. ^ a b The Back Row, Robin's Underrated Gems: Blue Collar (1978)
  5. ^
  6. ^ Metz, Nina (August 24, 2017). "No shadows or trenchcoats: Why a 1978 Richard Pryor movie unexpectedly qualifies as film noir". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 2, 2018.
  7. ^ Blue Collar, Movie Reviews. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  8. ^ Roger Ebert reviews Blue Collar. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  9. ^ Siskel and Ebert Top 10. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  10. ^ List of Films All Aspiring Filmmakers Must See. IndieWire. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  11. ^ Springsteen, Bruce (2016). Born to Run. London: Simon & Schuster. p. 313.

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