Blue Collar: Richard Pryor’s Most Underappreciated Performance

Having already established himself a screenwriter of vital importance with his work on Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader made his directorial debut in 1978 with Blue Collar. This probing analysis of the American Dream gone wrong stars Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto as a trio of aseembly line workers toiling away at a Detroit assembly line, struggling to get by. In a fit of shared mutual frustration, the trio decide to loot the office of their local union represent, a move that yields little cash but plenty of evidence that shows how the reps who should be looking out for them are instead incredibly corrupt. Deciding to try to use this info for their own gain via blackmail, the men quickly discover how hard and dangerous trying to make their lives better can be.

The film’s script and tumultuous production — during which Schrader suffered a breakdown — usually gets all of the attention when this film is discussed. (Which isn’t really often enough, given its surprisingly candid subject matter and timeless message of three ordinary joes coming up against major obstacles in their quest for better lives). What is most noteworthy here is Pryor’s performance, which likely caught audiences who only knew his manic stage persona off guard. Pryor is a revelation here, which isn’t to take away from the talents of his co-leads. But the comedian’s relatable and deeply human performance stands out in a movie that, while still grossly underrated, nevertheless remains one of the best of the 1970s.

This article originally ran last July, we are reprinting it today for this week’s Throwback Thursday post.