Race relations in Blue Collar

by Michael Omi

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 7-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

Over a decade after the "Great Rebellion" and the emergence of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers dramatically demonstrated the response of black people in Detroit to the pervasiveness of racism in every facet of their work and everyday lives, BLUE COLLAR presents us with a surprisingly different vision of contemporary race relations than we night have imagined. As the film unfolds, we are initially struck by the absence of racial conflict. Things somehow have miraculously improved if the close, affectionate relationship between three autoworkers — Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) and Zeke (Richard Pryor), who are black, and Jerry (Harvey Keitel), who is white-is any indication of the new racial climate.

The setting for BLUE COLLAR, the automobile factory, has been traditionally regarded as the classical locus of capital-labor relations. Viewed by leftists as a prime arena for "point of production" organizing, it was also the site of nationalist movements in the late sixties given its racially segregated departments." [1] The plant was indeed the plantation; it was a microcosm of U.S. race relations. Black workers were confined to the dirtiest, most dangerous, and most physically demanding jobs in the foundry, body shop, and engine assembly departments. Black and white workers were structurally separated at the workplace. They shared little of a cannon consciousness and culture and increasingly pursued different political agendas in union halls and city council meetings. Although black demands and Affirmative Action directives over the last ten years have mitigated the more striking examples of the racial division of labor, much remains the same.

The plant and race relations in BLUE COLLAR give us quite a different picture. The glimpses of the assembly line we are treated to show that blacks are fully integrated into the various departments in the plant.

Given that blacks are no longer strictly confined to select job categories, nor segregated from whites, we would suspect that blacks and whites would display some camaraderie on the job. After all, for years prominent social psychologists have been saying that racial prejudice will subside as people are exposed to colleagues from different racial groups at work. But while white workers may have accepted racial cooperation and integration on the shop floor, their consciousness has often not extended to efforts to achieve racial equality on a number of social issues ranging from the integration of schools and neighborhoods to equal protection under the law. In addition to this, given patterns of segregated housing, different social communities (i.e., extended kin relations and ethnic ties), and a different range of leisure and recreational activities, we would expect that there would be little socializing outside the workplace. But in BLUE COLLAR the protagonists drink at the same bar together, their families bowl together, and they get "loaded" and have sex with women together.

The latter activity deserves some note. The film's attempt to provide what seems like obligatory sexual titillation in director/writer Paul Schrader's notorious manner of objectifying women [2] is wielded in service of demonstrating just how integrated these guys really are. After drinking, smoking dope, and snorting coke, more recreational playthings are taken on in the form of a racially mixed group of women. Racism and sexism have historically been intertwined in the U.S., complexly connected through the notion of human beings as property. The ideological result has been the objectification of sex and race with distinct qualities and temperaments being - ascribed to racial/sexual groups (e.g., black men, white women, Asian women, etc.). Both Eldridge Cleaver [3] and Shulamith Firestone, [4] from different political perspectives (black nationalism and radical feminism, respectively) have commented on the emotionally explosive relations engendered by these perceptions. A particularly volatile issue for black and white men has been interracial sexual relations and access to "each other's' women. In BLUE COLLAR, however, there isn't a hint of tension as Smokey, playing the "black stud" stereotype to the hilt, demonstrates some sexual acrobatics with a white woman while Jerry proceeds to have sex with a black woman. In a society were sexual relations are heavily tinged with racism, neither is the least fazed by the other's activity. [5]

Aside from racial integration on the "line" and the presence of black/white primary relations, BLUE COLLAR offers interesting visions of racial accommodation in the cultural realm. To some degree the film suggests that blacks have increasingly been assimilated into the fabric of mass culture and that cultural contradictions are flattened. All the glimpses of primetime TV in BLUE COLLAR feature scenes from programs about blacks, THE JEFFERSONS and GOOD TIMES. Yet the seemingly progressive aspect of the increased presence of blacks on TV is tempered by clips which illustrate how stereotypic and unreal these black roles are. In spite of this, the shows appear to entertain both the black and white households involved.

In the interracial bar where the workers recuperate, Zeke can tolerate country and western music so long as its "hillbilly" aficionado doesn't overdo it. The jukebox comes to personify this tenuous accommodation in its ability to spew out both country and soul. While cultural contradictions, one basis for racial antagonisms, have not been obliterated, we cam away feeling that they have been significantly muted.

Race relations could have been dramatically and effectively treated in a film which deals with such powerful theses as the labor/management conflict and working-class life. Yet despite the potential of the material which Schrader rallied together, he opted for an easy device, the heist-caper format, to create a sense of suspense and drama. The protagonists, wallowing in a sea of debts from gambling (Smokey) or in order to provide necessities and a modicum of conspicuous commodities for their families (Zeke and Jerry), decide to rob the safe in the union hall. Fortified by the rationale that the money is "theirs anyway" and incensed by the apathy of the union leadership to their concerns, they engage in a comical heist. Their egos as thieves are quickly deflated, however, when they discover virtually no money in the safe. What they do find is a record book which chronicles the misuse of union funds. The trio tries to blackmail the union into paying them for the return of the book. The results are tragic and disastrous. They are naive to the cruel machinations of the union leader, a 1930s militant gone corrupt. Smokey, considered the militant "bad nigger" who will never acquiesce to authority, is killed; Zeke is bought off with a union rep position; and Jerry is nearly murdered and seeks solace in the unlikely arms of the FBI.

While raising intriguing themes about race relations throughout the fabric of the story, the film's eventual conclusions are muddled. This seems the result of Schrader's inability to really deal with the subject, in a coherent fashion. The film's insights seem unintended and unconscious, occurring behind Schrader's back. Up until the end, he has painted a picture of racial harmony which was at worst a tolerant accommodation of racial and cultural differences. This entire portrait is violently shattered in the ending sequence with Zeke and Jerry shouting racial epithets at each other — underscored by the frozen frame of them poised to inflict violence on one another.

The terms "honky" and "nigger" which are heatedly exchanged ironically put us on more familiar ground. Our "common sense" tells us that even in the best of situations, when the chips are down and antagonisms flare, racial distinctions immediately cow to the fore. But is this immediate reaction a convincing one? Could we just as easily conclude that these attacks couched in racial slurs are not racist attacks but reflect the distinct paths Zeke and Jerry have chosen? Perhaps because of the two men's past affection for each other, racial slurs seem the most personal way to attack and hurt each other. The division and distance between them at the end cannot be articulated in any available terms. They slide around their new allegiance to two opposing camps (the union and the FBI) by using convenient racial vocabulary which helps to situate them in more familiar camps (blacks and whites).

What does all this suggest about racism in the present period? First of all, the movie leads us to believe that the material basis of racism (as reflected in people's location in the productive process of an auto assembly plant) has been obliterated; second, that cultural contradictions have been accommodated; and last, that black/white relations within the working class are harmonious. Within this context, the ending didactically conveys a popular perspective on racism within liberal arid left circles. It reveals that racism is a form of false consciousness — a form which in fact the working class itself knows to be false.

Since there appears to be no objective basis for racism, one interpretation would focus its appearance on the prejudices of individual workers. Here we end up with the stock liberal notion of racism as the collective term for individual prejudicial sentiments which are founded on misconceptions and antiquated ideas and expressed through individual acts. A possible Marxist diagnosis of the film would interpret Smokey's observation of how "they" divide "us" as the divide-and-conquer strategy of monopoly capitalists and trade union bureaucrats who seek to exploit race as a means to prevent the emergence of working-class consciousness. [6] But the ending makes us suspicious about either of these interpretations with the realization that perhaps the workers themselves realize that racial slurs are merely expressions of differences which are not racial in character. The use of racial terms is only the most convenient and quick means to hurt one another.

BLUE COLLAR is not without its complexity (or inconsistency). The film imagines the working class to be integrated but suggests that racism is operative outside of its class boundaries. The union leadership, while continually evoking its historical struggle to integrate the industry, is essentially white. Similarly, management representatives, in those rare instances in the film where management is seen, are white. It appears as if racial barriers are preventing blacks from entering into upper-level, managerial positions. Zeke's decision to submit to the offers of the union leadership is premised on the belief that institutional racism will not allow him another shot at upward mobility nor will it guarantee him safe protection by the police should he inform on the union's corruption. Zeke's entry might suggest a break with the "old" patterns, but even he remains unconvinced about his effectiveness in changing things. He has been politically neutralized by the union leadership; it's the classic case of co-optation.

Since BIRTH OF A NATION, a film which popularized an interpretation of Reconstruction and standardized a paranoid vision of blacks, countless films have explicitly or implicitly dealt with race relations in the US. Some have presented stereotypic perceptions concocted from white racist fantasies while others have offered realistic and penetrating portraits of race relations which have sensitized audiences to the existence and inhumanity of racism. With its contradictions, BLUE COLLAR has revealing things to say about the way in which race relations are perceived today. The film offers an insightful glimpse of the workplace, presents a vision of working-class life, and stars two blacks and one white, a nice break from Hollywood's prescription for racial ratios. [7] BLUE DOLLAR also serves up a spectrum of black personalities — the conservative, "Uncle Tomish," older black worker, the family-oriented, feisty Zeke, and the "badass" Smokey — as opposed to the one-dimensional, monolithic group of blacks we get in most films. Most refreshing is the portrayal of blacks as working people, not as the cinematic lumpen-proletariat that occasionally, as in SUPERFLY, rises to glamorous heights.

Despite all these elements in its favor, BLUE COLLAR offers us a superficial vision of race relations which portrays the working class as objectively integrated. Racism when it rears its ugly head is the expression of truly false consciousness. This vision is a false one. It is one unfortunately shared by segments of the left who believe racism to be merely an ideological fixture which hinders white workers from seeing that their objective interests are similar to those of racial minority workers. In practice, the raising of "class" demands has often meant the submersion of antiracist demands.[8]

If BLUE COLLAR offers us a false and contradictory vision of race relations, part of the reason lies with the confusing and contradictory nature of contemporary race relations. In the last decade, the industrial sector has changed and capital-labor struggles have affected race relations dramatically, Affirmative Action programs, the displacement of labor through technological innovations, the recomposition of the labor force, and capital flight from inner cities as well as from the U.S. itself have all profoundly altered the nature of race relations.

Race relations are rapidly approaching a critical period. In the wake of the Weber decision, scores of suits brought forth from the private and public sectors illustrate that the right to equal access for jobs and redress for past racial discrimination are still problematic. The riot in the Liberty City ghetto of Miami testifies to the existence of a split society, one in which the black underclass feels brutalized by state institutions while it slips increasingly into impoverishment. Their anger and frustration, coupled with the new mood of "social meanness" among broad sectors of the population, threaten to divide the races more sharply than the racial confrontations of the sixties.

Racism has always been the monster lurking in the belly of the auto industry. In the twenties, Henry Ford wooed black community leaders to convince blacks to act as strikebreakers. The 1940s witnessed the UAW (United Auto Workers) leadership breaking wildcat strikes which were organized by white workers to prevent black workers from entering the industry. In the 1960s, the emergence of DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) and subsequent RUMs pointed to the necessity of organizing black workers around the issue of racism in the plants, the union halls, and the community. New currents in the auto industry threaten to exacerbate problems. The energy crisis, foreign competition, declining domestic sales, and technological innovations conspire to spell massive layoffs and broad changes in productive relations.

This legacy and what looms on the horizon are unfortunately ignored in favor of a rather shallow and confusing portrait of race relations in BLUE COLLAR. The film's conclusion breeds cynicism and a fatalistic mistrust of collective action which is served up under the thin political veil of racism as a divisive tactic — an ideological weapon which disguises the real enemy and sets us against our allies. Smokey's voice reiterates an earlier observation over the final frame:

"They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white, to keep us in our place."

The overall effect on the audience is chilling. The statement seem like such a truism that we tend to greet it with a weary nod and some pondering as to who Schrader thinks "they" are. A better question may be how do "they" do it? Hollywood may be rediscovering the working class, but it doesn't have an inkling about the conflicts and divisions within it. They extend beyond mere name-calling.


1. The political struggles of black auto workers are intriguingly chronicled in Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Mind Dying (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975).

2. The women characters are little more than ciphers in BLUE COLLAR. They are either one-dimensional inducers of guilt (the wives) or givers of sexual pleasure (the playmates).

3. Eldrige Cleaver, "The Primeval Mitosis," in Soul on Ice (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1968).

4. Shulamith Firestone, "Racism: The Sexism of the Family of Man," in The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Bantam Books, 1971).

5. I think this aspect of the scene was most striking although Schrader's intent was probably to illustrate that the family itself was no longer a haven or refuge but a source of tension and guilt. This necessitated the occasional "boys' night out."

6. Most left critics of the film have not challenged either of these perspectives. See "BLUE COLLAR: Detroit Moviegoers Have Their Say." Cineaste 8, no. 4 (Summer 1978).

7. When Schrader was presenting a description of the main characters, one movie exec corrected him by saying, "You mean, two white and one black." Interview with Paul Schrader, Seven Days (7 April 1978).

8. Noel Ignatin, "Black Workers, White Workers," Radical America 8, no. 4 (July/August 1974).

9. Al Auster et al., "Hollywood and the Working Class: A Discussion," Socialist Review 4-6 (July/August 1979).