The directorial debut of actor Bill Duke, THE KILLING FLOOR is the true story of a black Chicago labor leader whose efforts to help Polish-led labor unions integrate the city's stockyards during WWI were stymied by racial tensions that led to brutal rioting in July 1919. The film was made
for the PBS series "American Playhouse" in 1984 and was released to home video in 1997.
After hearing that war labor shortages mean high-paying jobs for blacks in northern cities, Frank Custer (Damien Leake) leaves his wife, Mattie (Alfre Woodard), and his children in Mississippi to travel to Chicago with his best friend, Thomas Joshua (Ernest Rayford). Frank and Thomas secure work
in the cattle slaughterhouses of the Chicago stockyards, where Frank is brought into the fold of a small but growing labor union that is threatening the profits of the meat-packing company. Frank rapidly becomes an important figure in the labor movement as his union begins to rely on him to
recruit other blacks to join. Thomas eventually gives up his job to enlist in the military instead. He goes off to fight in WWI and returns as a hero with a chest full of medals, but also as a much more violent man who threatens the city's racist white goons with a pistol.
The meat-packing company executives give some concessions to the union when the war is raging and the workers' services are critical, but revert to profit-mongering and strike-breaking tactics once the war is over. White men returning home from the battlefield must now compete with black men for
jobs, leading to racial tensions. Both situations come to a boil in July 1919. Race riots break out, followed by the company's decision to employ blacks as picket-line-crossing scabs. Thomas is killed in the riots, while Frank, his family in danger of starving, breaks down and joins the ranks of
the scabs, to the dismay of his union brothers. Refusing to relinquish his dignity totally, Frank crosses union picket lines but puts on his union pin--underneath the lapel of his shirt.
Less fictionalized than most historical dramas, THE KILLING FLOOR is scrupulously researched, with every character based on a real person--no "composites" here. The weight of its veracity sometimes bogs down the pace of the film, however. Characters like that of Lilah Dean (Mary Alice), a classy
local who writes letters home for the illiterate Custer, don't seem to exist for any purpose than to elongate a talky drama--she later disappears from the film entirely. Duke's stagy direction, awkward shot compositions, and jarring transitions don't help. THE KILLING FLOOR is a first film and, at
least stylistically, feels like it every grinding step of the way.
Only fine work from good actors like Leake, Gunn, Woodard, and Felder redeems the film at all, but it is worth a look for early appearances by a variety of Chicago-based actors: John Mahoney of TV's "Frasier," Ted Levine (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, MANHUNTER), and Dennis Farina (GET SHORTY) among
them. (Violence, adult situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1984
- Rating: PG
- Review: The directorial debut of actor Bill Duke, THE KILLING FLOOR is the true story of a black Chicago labor leader whose efforts to help Polish-led labor unions integrate the city's stockyards during WWI were stymied by racial tensions that led to brutal riotin… (more)