Film Movement Movie Review: The Killing Floor (1984)

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An incisive fact-based chronicle of the first big attempt made by Chicago slaughterhouse workers to fight against workplace abuse by joining an interracial union — before the city erupted in chaos during the horrific race riots of 1919 — gifted actor turned director Bill Duke's The Killing Floor originally premiered on PBS network's acclaimed series "American Playhouse" in 1984.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (in addition to contributions by foundations, corporations, and unions from across the country), Floor was made three years after President Reagan made the shocking decision to fire eleven thousand striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981. The recipient of the Special Jury Award from the Sundance Film Festival, watching The Killing Floor now in 2020, I couldn't help but feel that Duke's searing work is even timelier today than it was in 1984. 

In a quietly powerful, moving, multilayered performance, Apocalypse Now and Death Wish actor Damien Leake steps into the role of young Mississippi sharecropper Frank Custer. And in his voice-over narration that opens the film and reoccurs throughout, we watch as Frank leaves his wife and children behind to try to find a better life for them all. Traveling along with his best friend and lifelong neighbor Thomas (Ernest Rayford), the two men make the journey to Chicago as just two of the tens of thousands of southern Black citizens who ventured north to where jobs were plentiful during the first world war.

Eager to find work in the industrialized "promised land" and then send for their loved ones to come and join them as well, the men report to the stockyard of one of the city's five huge meatpacking plants. No stranger to the work since — as Frank explains — he'd killed lots of hogs back in Mississippi, once he takes a position in the stockyard, it takes him a little while to realize why certain coworkers stick together in packs.

Witnessing the power of the unionized group in action as they stand tall to prevent one of their own from being fired — regardless of the land he emigrated from and the language that he speaks — it isn't until Frank attends his first meeting that he becomes inspired to join the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America Union. Yet while Frank initially flourishes, things don't work out the same way for Thomas. After getting badly beaten in the "the hide room" on his first day at the plant, Thomas decides to give up that pursuit, walk away from the racists who'd beaten him bloody, and enlist in the first world war instead. 

Featuring a dynamic cast of top-notch character actors including Alfre Woodard and Moses Gunn as well as Chicago theater veterans like Dennis Farina and John Mahoney, the film was given a full 4K DCP digital restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in 2019 in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Chicago race riots, which are depicted and covered in the movie. 

With so much going on right now regarding the incredibly important Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the gruesome murder of George Floyd as well as Trump's efforts to divide the populace with hate and misinformation — in a tactic that the meatpacking industry used to stop the unions in 1919 — there has never been a better time to watch this powerful film than right now.

Ending with a chilling coda that lets us know exactly what happened to all involved and also credits the heroic efforts of the laborers in the interracial union who paved the way for the union protection that the workers would receive in the 1930s, The Killing Floor is a truly compelling, blistering, and vital historical document. 

Heartbreaking when you consider that as the global war against Covid-19 rages on, workers in meatpacking plants are some of the hardest hit by the disease, the film — which was written by Leslie Lee and based on a story from producer Elsa Rassbach — makes me curious to learn more about the evolution of the industry's union over the last hundred years.

Although he was no stranger to directing TV by 1984, The Killing Floor takes Bill Duke's role as a future filmmaker to a whole new level and foreshadows his great work to come as he gives voice to people who are normally overlooked onscreen. From his commitment to the period and ability to transform what in someone else's hands might have been too stagy given the film's limited budget and sets, etc., Floor crystallizes Duke's greatest strength. Namely, as an actor himself, he knows precisely how to get the performances he needs out of his talented cast to make his character-driven humanistic work connect with his audience. The end result of his efforts is a film you cannot miss. Powerful, hard-hitting, but still exceptionally and tenderly crafted, UCLA's lustrous new restoration of The Killing Floor premieres in virtual cinemas this weekend, courtesy of Film Movement

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