One of the great underseen movies about labor and race almost didn’t get made

Charles Bramesco
·4 mins read

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The recent release of Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7—along with the ongoing protests in the streets of American cities—has us thinking back on other movies about activism.


The Killing Floor (1984)

In the early 1970s, producer Elsa Rassbach set a grand plan for a 10-part series of films telling the story of labor in the United States, to be run on the PBS anthology series American Playhouse under the banner “Made In U.S.A.” After a decade-plus of obstructions to the funds this undertaking would require (a campaign of interference recounted in finer detail here and here), the wider project was abandoned with only one entry completed. And that film’s budget could only be cobbled together through donations from more than three dozen unions, along with agreements from the cast and crew to work for minuscule fractions of their usual fees. Watching 1984’s The Killing Floor, it’s not hard to tell why so many people didn’t want it made, and why those who did felt so strongly that it must be.

Dramatizing the 1919 Chicago race riot and the charged years precipitating it, the film pairs a cogent argument for organization with an even-keeled assessment of its roadblocks. Penniless sharecroppers Frank Custer (Damien Leake) and Thomas Joshua (Ernest Rayford) leave Mississippi for the Windy City, tipped that World War I deployment has left lots of jobs vacant up north. They follow the flow of the Great Migration in search of steady pay, first to affordable high-density housing on the South Side, and then to a local fixer (Stephen McKinley Henderson) who sets them up at a meat processing plant. There, a bitter stalemate between the corporate overlords called “packers” and the white-led union puts Frank and his peers in a tight spot. He wants nothing more than to earn enough to move his wife (Alfre Woodard) and kids out of the south, but both sides see him as their key to victory.

The capitalists seize on the preexisting racial division, illustrated with shocking fidelity to an era when children used slurs no longer allowed on network TV for their nursery rhymes, to sow dissent among the underlings. When the war ends and the soldiers return, the bosses dismiss the Black employees, then hire them back as scabs to undermine the white union guys in the knowledge that the blue-collar factions at odds will blame one another. Though Custer steps up as de facto organizer for “his” people, he can’t convince holdout “Heavy” Williams (Moses Gunn) that they’re not just being used to advance someone else’s cause. That the film never allows the pragmatic and sharp Williams to be made into an overt antagonist shows how justified his concerns really are. The powers that be create a no-win game by pitting parts of the same socioeconomic team against each other, cultivating competition through the prejudice of the Polish industry lifers and their Black counterparts’ distrust.

The events of the film, a history flashpoint, resonated with a working class stinging under Reaganomics (the former star of Bedtime For Bonzo had forced layoffs for upwards of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981) just as it speaks to the overdrawn proletariat of today. Directed by actor and filmmaker Bill Duke, seen recently as a living Easter egg in Steven Soderbergh’s gesture of solidarity High Flying Bird, The Killing Floor brings uncommon clarity and emphasis to talking points that still bear repeating. And yet for all its unfortunate timelessness, this raised fist also stands as a monument to Custer’s times. A large research team scrounged up every crumb of period detail they could find, though as the final title card informs us, both Custer and Joshua disappear from the record after the events of the film. By that point, it looks more like their memory was buried than forgotten.

Availability: The Killing Floor is available to rent through Film Movement’s virtual cinema.