BLUE COLLAR," a new film from universal that opens in Washington on March 24, contains more cuss words than a Redd Foxx "party album." It is written and directed by Paul Shrader, a man well known for violent films, and stars three actors with super-charged egos - Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Koto. It also stands a chance of being the forerunner of a class of films likely to draw large numbers of blacks and whites to the box office.
On the surface, this film about a corrupt auto union, which has already been described by critics as a Marxist tract, would seem an unlifely candidate to foster any kind of racial understanding.
But only two weeks after its opening it is attracting interracial audiences and has earned $340,000, making it the 15th of Variety's 50 top-grossing films.
Blue Collar features black and white actors and a nonracial subject conceived to appeal to both black and whites. In its own way, it is a new kind of film - a "blakenlightenment film."
In the late '60s and early '70s, blacks-ploitation films - formula movies that stressed sex and violence - poured out of Hollywood. In recent years there has been a dramatic decline in these productions as blacks tired of the exploitation and stereotyping, turning instead for action and entertainment to Kung Fu and science fiction subject matter.
Blaxploitation movies, after they ran their course, were followed by films like Sidney Poitier's "A Piece of the Action," which were made for blacks but which whites "crossed over" to see.
The Blackenlightment approach is different, since it represents the industry's attempt to hold black audiences through films that also will appeal to whites.
Black writer and critic Clayton Riley observes, "The Bloods out in Hollywood are uptight. They are saying that in order for a film to make it, the black thingt has got to be de-emphasized . . . it's gotta be humanistic to make money."
Novelist and screenwriter Don Westlake describes this new humanism, or Blakenlightenment: "Creators are trying to transcend the black-white thing. The new crossover formula for films has got to be something more than what was offered by the Blacksploitation files. These new films will star blacks, but will attempt to tackle a nonracial subject . . . like workers."
Economics, as always, play a part. The general trend in the movie industry today is to produce fewer movies with big budgets, in order to gain a larger gross, al la "Star Wars." The more people a film attracts, the better the gross. Thus the need for movies that attract not only young blacks and the black middle class, but white audiences as well.
Thus there are fewer black films. Jet, the black newsweekly, recently ran a cover story entitled, "Is Their Really a plot to Kill Off Black Movies?" Nate Long recalls, "Some white friends were trying to raise money for a black film and were discouraged. I feel that the industry is actively trying to come up with a formula for black films. If 'Blue Collar' people have found it . . . they are going to make a lot of money."
Adds Charles Powell, Universal's vice president for advertising "Blue Collar" is really a one-of-a kind film. But if it is successful, it will encourage a wave of interacial realistic films (not unlike the Italian cinema of two decades ago) on controversial subjects." Powell believes that in a few months writers with such controversial screenplays will find the studios more receptive than before.
Both Universal and Schrader deny that they have made a black film. (One publicist called the notion "far-fetched.") Schrade explained that when he decided to cast it, at least one of the major characters had to be black because "American care . . . are made primarily by black peopl." Schrader, who in the past has been accused by some cynics of exploiting violence in his scripts under the guise of dealing w social causes (notably in his "Taxi Driver"), utilizes those familiar "ghetto themes," jive talk, sex and gore, that made piles of money for blacksploitation films.
But this seems to be a day when films must contain a new combination, and one that "Blue Collar" seems to have a name director, a social cause and black actors.
In its attempt to appeal to a wider audience, however, "Blue Collar" has no "hole in its soul." The movie maintains a strong appeal to blacks because of Pryor. He dominates the screen with his mini-raps and ditty bop manner. Like no other social commentator, he has hit the nerve of an urban black ethic and lifestyle. He is like a "black boy sage" who sees much and tells all.
Is the audience an enlightened one for "Blue Collar?"
Morris Rochelle, manager of New York's Rivoll theater, explained, "At first, the crowd was almost all black. But after they changed that ads (by dropping the pictures of the three lead actors and starting to stress the rave reviews), whites started coming."
Andrew Makowsky, the manager of the Trans-Lux East in New York, also said that business picked up when the ads stressed the comments of major critics.
Powell, said the advertising was programmed "to give the film credibility. It needed credentials through good reviews. We had to dispel any notion that it was an exploitation film. We held press screenings for critics all over the country and it was reviewed as a serious film."
Makowsky adds, "it is doing well among the blacks and the white intellectuals . . . whites with a conscience." Variety predicted that the film would need good reviews and strong word of mouth support if it was to appeal to an audience beyond the inner city.
Andrew Sarris, writing in the Village Voice, noted that some highbrows have called it "the first Marxist film in the classical tradition of cinema since Abraham Polonsky's "Force of Evil" . . . A French intellectual . . . has argued, to the contrary, that "Blue Collar" is actually a fascist film because of its inclination to resolve all problems violently and its mistrust of all collective effort."
Even if "Blue Collar" is not remembered in the annals of film history as a great work of art, it has in only a few weeks opened up possibilities for a new sort of ideological cinema. And if this "earthy" movie scores as the blackenlightenment prototype, film moguls will be able to churn them out while marching to the bank feeling righteous.