New York

“The Killing Floor”

The Killing Floor, 1985, is the first in an upcoming series of films concerning the American worker. Entitled “Made in U.S.A.,” this ambitious project is the brainchild of Elsa Rassbach, who not only functioned as executive producer of The Killing Floor but also did much of the historical research, wrote the original story, and assembled the film’s formidable cast and crew. Rassbach believes that “the history of working people is very much American history,” and her proposal is to reinsert, through the documentary film, what has been deleted from the narrative depiction of America’s economic and social development. Combing through the National Archives, she came across a 600-page chunk of overlooked American history: the story of Frank Custer, Austin “Heavy” Williams, and Bill Bremer, whose roles in the episodic melodrama of American labor and race relations are the stuff of The Killing Floor.

The film opens with a clatter of old-time piano music over original footage of troop trains carrying young men off to battle. The year is 1917, and World War I is draining America’s labor force, opening the way for the migration of rural Southern blacks into the factories of the North. Frank Custer (strongly portrayed by Damien Leake) is one of these migrants. Hoping to make enough money to support his wife and kids, he travels to Chicago, where he takes a job in the city stockyards, bisecting carcasses and sweeping blood from the killing floor It isn’t long before Frank is pulled into the antagonisms that accompanied the emergence of the unions and foregrounded labor’s struggle to make the workplace fit for human beings.

The film doesn’t collapse this conflict into a good/bad guy cartoon but exposes the untenability of the position of black people in America. As the film clearly shows, racism outlines the black man’s relationship not only to managerial power but also to the unions themselves. Frank slowly but surely becomes an avid supporter of workers’ rights, heeding the advice of a black activist who intones, “Any man that fails to join the forces of organized labor has a grudge against himself” Along with Bill Bremer (Clarence Felder), a sympathetic white unionist, Frank struggles against the divisiveness that threatens to destroy the labor movement and the minute possibility of racial tolerance. Many black laborers, following the lead of union dissenter Heavy Williams (Moses Gunn), steer clear of the union and remain dubious of its ability to represent its black constituents. Instead, they align themselves with the white plant owners, and are charged with collaboration by the union. And proving the adage that "white man’s war is always good for colored men:’ when peace returns in 1919 things get really bad on the home front: white veterans come home to find their jobs have been taken by migrant blacks, and Chicago explodes into a churning puddle of race riots and murder.

The Killing Floor captures these historical reckonings in starkly moving fashion. Director William Duke, who has helmed over 30 Off-Broadway plays and 15 prime-time TV shows, has used conventional modes of visual and verbal narrative to make tangible the shaping of American culture and to provide a rationale for the lives we live today. The screenplay, by Leslie Lee, a black American playwright, is eloquently balanced between emotive exuberance and expository candor.

The deletion of this episode from popular historical narrative reminds us of the social construction of the factual. This film succeeds in telling the untold truth at a time when we are exposed only to revisions of the same old story. As we careen blindly through these numbed-out days of historical and cultural amnesia, any restoration to memory of time actually lived brings with it a kind of revelatory shock, an insistent shaking up of the deaf-, dumb-, and blindness that constitute a simulated present.

Barbara Kruger