Richard Pryor did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Zeke Brown in Blue Collar.
Richard Pryor was and is known as a legendary figure in the world of stand up comedy. Sadly his cinematic career pales in comparison to this, as he seemed largely misused by Hollywood for much of his career. Notable examples of this being Superman III, or in the same year as this film in The Wiz. This where executives seemed to say "you're funny be funny", in poorly thought out scenarios that expected Pryor to make something out of nothing, honestly frequently less than nothing. Sadly any chance for Pryor to really find a better path for himself was cut short by his drug addition and failing health. Now there were examples of films that found some decent material for Pryor to work with, although even these were typically pretty limited roles, Blue Collar however stands in a completely different league here, as a film that seemed to understand an even greater potential in Pryor than one might've expected. Now interesting enough, from the outset of the film, it kind of pulls you into thinking this might be more an expected, if a bit grittier, comedy of some working class guys. This with perhaps Harvey Keitel, filling in the Gene Wilder role, though with an actor like Keitel in that role, that perhaps tells you a little bit that might not be the case after all. Early on though we do get a bit more of Pryor's expected comedic presence as they complain about their conditions and the Union that seems to only serve themselves. These early moments though being in more jesting frustrations, with some nice chemistry in creating a general camaraderie between Pryor's Zeke, Keitel's Jerry and Yaphet Kotto's Smokey as work buddies. Pryor nicely bring a comic charm to these early moments with the guys just hanging early on, and we are granted a sense of friendship in mutual misery, which is realized in joking at their mutually difficult plight.
We are granted though that this will be a bit more in an early scene, where we see Zeke with his wife and family at home, when an IRS agent comes back for a bit of additional auditing. Now initially we do get a bit of comedy as Zeke claims a bit of additional children and Pryor is hilarious as he names off some additional well known names as some extra kids, while his wife grabs a few extra kids from the neighborhood to "fill in". It's a good comic setup and works in that sense. Although as the IRS man presses Pryor naturally and quite powerfully segues to something far more serious as Zeke speaks his difficult plight of having so little money to begin with and just scraping by. Pryor is quite simply incredible in the moment as the years of frustration are brimming in his eyes and his voice being so moving as there is such a sense of defeat even in the anger of his delivery. Honestly watching this scene ought to shatter anyone's image that all Pryor could be is funny, as there is such a real raw power to the scene that is remarkable. This is as Pryor not only brings such an intensity to the moment, but we are granted a real sense of the man's history of just getting beaten down by one thing after another in the nature of that intensity found in his performance. This made all the more potent as Pryor rips the rug out from under us, because in the scene we begin laughing but are shocked into seeing the real tragedy of Zeke's life. This is but a preview in a way to his performance however, as we see this early instance of the real anger that goes beyond just complaints shared between friends.
There is then the progress of Pryor's work which shows this growing sense of aggravation in the man. Early on we still have moments of a more expected presence of Pryor with that comedic edge, that is well realized by him here. That is he offers a light comic edge, he doesn't overplay the moments, making Zeke just a naturally kind of funny guy, rather than giving an overtly comic performance. It's used so well though because in turn we see the anger as all the more dynamic in his performance. This in that as the story goes on, and the three men find evidence of the union corruption, and the situation only becomes more sever. Pryor is outstanding in the moments of realizing such searing hatred towards the foreman and his union rep, showing a man who has just had it with his experience. It is raw, but also we see the tiring quality within Pryor's work. There is a remarkable degradation in the man as no matter what they try nothing seems to change. There's a great moment where Zeke is brought in to deal with an issue between him and the foreman. Pryor is outstanding in creating this scene as one of endless frustration and hate of the man just festering as his demands are forgotten, while everyone else's seem easily satisfied. Every word Pryor brings an ache of the lies and waste of time. His reactions filled with just defeat towards the union rep, of a man who knows he will get no help from any side, and can only resort to outrage. The union no way intimidated or changed by their evidence instead seek ways in which to deal with the men in some ways, violennt if necessary.
This begins first with negotiation for Zeke however, who they offer a position to be the new Union rep. Although we do have a fantastic moment in the heartbreak Pryor delivers as he learns of corruption's violence, this as his eyes fill with disbelief at the action, and a sense of defeat though within his whole existence, Zeke ends up taking the position. This is much to Jerry's dismay who question Zeke's choice, in a downright amazing scene for Pryor. Pryor is brilliant in this scene as he brings such a vivid sense of the broken fight as speaks of his choice. Pryor so humanizes this decision though that you wholly understand Zeke in the moment even as he basically joins in the corruption. There is such devastation in his eyes, and honesty in his voice though as Pryor speaks to his family's struggle because of his race, and it is with such genuine sense of a life of frustrations that we see this decision. Pryor is downright heartbreaking in the scene as in the moment he fully realizes a man who has been struggling for an inch, and as he explains what he is willing to compromise for that inch, it is difficult to quickly damn him as Pryor makes it so real in the all to human explanation. He is devastating to watch to watch in the scene, as the whole life of desperation is wound within his expression as Zeke makes his decision. This leaving Jerry in a precarious situation, who refuses to compromise leaving him no choice but to go to the FBI lest be murdered by the corrupt Union. This leaving a moment of confrontation of Zeke and Jerry in factory. This scene is incredible as Pryor and Keitel, are again so exceptional in the scene by making it so honest. We see a fight in this scene that could only exist between former friends, as the venom in each other and the sense of betrayal each exude seems to go their very core. Their intensity is messy in creating such a sense of each man taking all of everything that happened on each other in the moment, in what is also a heartbreaking scene, as we see all that old camaraderie gone, purged from them due to the corrupt system, but making the fight all the more abrasive and personal. This as both seem to not only be lashing out at each other but within it every thing they've gone through in life. This is a great performance by Richard Pryor. This as he peels away his expected presence, to give such a convincing and shattering depiction of a man being swallowed by the system. It's a shame his career didn't allow for more chances like this, as this shows he was far more capable than just being a funny man.