Americans have always had a contentious relationship with unions. People associate them with socialism. And in the 70s, especially after the ‘disappearance’ of Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, the association between unions and the Mafia was entrenched in people’s minds.
Blue Collar (1978), Paul Schrader’s first directorial effort, is an intelligent and articulate product of its time. Cowritten with Schrader’s brother Leonard (most of Schrader’s best products came out of a collaboration with his brother, before their falling out through the process of filming Mishima), featuring inspiration from an article written by Sydney A. Glass, this happens to be Schrader’s most powerful film. And yet, it’s not very well known
The story centres around a trio of friends, two black and one white, played by Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel, who work at an auto plant in Detroit. Many of the early scenes feature them on the assembly line, contending with the hard rigours of their jobs, griping as their foreman hassles them, or sharing beers after work. There are virtually no throwaway lines in this movie. Everything is laden with commentary and insight, from the impossibility of paying bills to the tensions that result in their families to how both the auto plant and their union screw them over. There are so many great lines and scenes in this movie (“Plant is just short for plantation”, “Why do you go to the line every Friday? – because the finance man’s gonna be at your house on Saturday”, “If I had the Navy and the marines behind me, I’d be a mothafucka too”, “Wages ain’t the problem no more, it’s the prices”) that I’m constantly puzzled this film isn’t more of an icon than it is.
At their wits’ end, the three friends concoct a plan to rob their union locale’s safe – it’s supposed to be a knockover. They make away with the union’s safe only to find some petty cash and a book recording illegal loan shark payments. They try and think of ways they can use the book to their advantage but are novices in the game, inept and unsure, while the union officials are old hands. Our protagonists are no match for the union’s chicanery which uses its considerable power and corruption to bribe, coerce, and destroy the three workers. A crime movie or thriller on the surface, so much of the texture and angst in this film comes from its depiction of working class struggle and its ailments. The tension flows smoothly and seamlessly between its social and thriller aspects. Riveting and perfectly constructed, it defies genre. What’s sad is not that the protagonists don’t make away with the loot, but that their friendships and lives are ruined.
The film ends in dissension and strife. Richard Pryor is often hailed as providing the electric energy felt through the film (Paul Schrader said that Pryor’s mood swings could light a major American city, and their struggles caused the director much grief) but Keitel also really delivers. A young Keitel performance, focused and emotive, is a beautiful thing to behold. Kotto’s pretty great too. In the end, it’s Keitel who’s left as the moral centre of the film but it doesn’t matter – it’s too late – from the beginning, the film shows us that those with means (whether they be the union, the corporation, or the government) will grind up and crush those without means. It’s just that the path there (in this particular case) is engendered with grit, verve, depth, humour, and style.
Bread and Roses (2000), directed by Ken Loach, (and Loach’s films in general) carry on the spirit of 70s films like Blue Collar. I think of Loach as an anti-Woody Allen. They have put out an immense number of films by sticking to small productions; Allen just eschews thinking about socioeconomic matters while Loach focuses on them.
Though this is not Loach’s first collaboration with screenwriter Paul Laverty, it’s an early one. They seem like a match made in heaven. The film centres around Mexican migrant worker Maya (Pilar Padilla) who crosses the border illegally to join her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) in L.A. Rosa is working as a cleaner for Angel Cleaners (an ironically named company, if there ever was one) and Maya browbeats Rosa into getting her a job in the same office tower, cleaning suites after wealthy business people have gone home. To work there, she has to suffer the abuses of Perez (George Lopez) who garnishes her entire first paycheque and indulges his petty power over the undocumented workers there. Besides the sexist (and sexual) abuse that happens, these workers can be fired at will, are constantly the objects of verbal abuse, and have rights (such as being able to leave the building during breaks) taken away from them.
However, Maya is a spirited individual. Sparky and strong of character from the start, she rails against her conditions. When she runs into the young upstart union organizer Sam (Adrien Brody, before he got the really big parts), who’s trying to get the the Angel workers to organize and join a janitor’s union, there’s chemistry and they share a common purpose. Rosa, who has a sick husband and a couple of kids to support, doesn’t want anything to do with Sam (she’s had a really hard life and at this point is looking out for ‘number one’) and his union or Maya’s idealism. Much like in Blue Collar, alliances, friendships, and even familial relationships are ground down and put to the test by the capitalist systems under which they operate. Perez is a Latino himself (perhaps even a former immigrant) and the way he treats the others who work under him is sickening.
The difference of course is that unions are presented as a good thing here, something worth suffering for, something workers need to fight the corporate interests that rule over them. Though the film is not constantly as live wire as Blue Collar, it’s still pretty damn tense – the story and characters are very engaging; the actors playing the three main parts are excellent, particularly Padilla, and the scenes are gripping. A couple of them will really raise the hair on the back of your neck and like Blue Collar, the drama’s not without verve or humour. An intelligent look at human characters occupying different vantage points around or within the system, the film will both move you and break your heart.
It’s really impossible to talk about either of these films without talking about race. Blue Collar heavily focuses on black/white relations – the n-word is thrown around, both in friendship and hate. In Bread and Roses, the key derogatory term is ‘wetback’ – it applies to the state of humans living in abject conditions, without support, without dignity, without even recognition that they’re there. It’s been thirty years since Bread and Roses came out and Blue Collar is more than forty years old. Yet, has very much changed in America? It’s impossible to watch these films now and not think of the flash points that have defined the recent election or the presidency that was Trump’s. If anything, these issues and divisions and schisms have gotten worse. Capitalism and its ills have spread to the internet and gotten an even stronger stranglehold over our lives, our every waking (and even sleeping) moments. These films are worth watching now more than ever.