Chicago has always been at the nexus of American life. Threads of the whole tapestry of the country’s history, especially of the Left, run through the city: race, class, industry, labor, migration and immigration, women’s rights, and the role of the police have all cut through Chicago over and over again. Such was the case from 1917 to 1919, when massive upheavals in American life all seemed to converge on the city’s South Side in ways that would ripple outward for decades.
This is the period covered by The Killing Floor, a film made for public television in 1984 by first-time director Bill Duke. Originally intended as the first of a series on labor history commissioned for the PBS American Playhouse series, The Killing Floor ended up being the sole entry. Though it was highly praised by critics, screening at Cannes and winning a special jury prize at the newly minted Sundance Film Festival, it fell victim to a near-total lack of commercial support and distribution, and largely disappeared from our cultural memory for decades.
But in 2019, to commemorate the centennial of the brutal Chicago race riot that the film portrays, the UCLA Film and Television archive released a restored 4K master, which went on to play at Cannes (again), the Siskel Center, and several other festivals and film forums. It finally arrived on the prestigious Criterion Channel late last year, along with its original trailer and a revealing interview with Duke.
Researched by writer-producer Elsa Rassbach, and using only real-life figures as its characters, The Killing Floor centers on the arrival of impoverished black Southerner Frank Custer to Chicago to seek a decent-paying job. With many of the city’s workers overseas fighting in World War I, the plants and factories began offering their jobs to the wave of black migrants arriving in huge numbers, just as the workers who remained (largely recent immigrants from Ireland, Poland, and Lithuania) were beginning to organize against the low wages, punishing hours, and deadly working conditions offered in slaughterhouses by the meatpacking companies.
It was a volatile moment in American history. America’s involvement in a foreign war signaled its new status as a global power; the struggle between powerful business interests and increasingly radicalized labor unions was growing more tense and more violent; the economy was in turmoil, and chaos wracked many Northern cities with poverty, rampant crime, and overcrowding; racial tension swelled across the country, with riots striking Houston, Charleston, Philadelphia, and other places where poor whites and poor blacks clashed over scarce jobs and limited resources. The press dubbed it the “Red Summer.”
Into the blood and fire of that summer stepped Frank Custer, and the forces competing for his loyalty make up The Killing Floor’s powerful story.
Only With Solidarity
The union with which Custer finally casts his lot — to the chagrin of his best friend, anti-union elements among the black workers, and racist white workers in the union itself — is the Amalgamated Meat Cutters (AMC), which played an outsized role in turn-of-the-century labor organizing in Chicago. In 1904, the AMC struck after employers reneged on a promise to raise the wages of its unskilled workers. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, opposed the strike, and huge numbers of blacks were brought in to replace the strikers, deepening the already existing racial divide between them and the white laborers. By the time of the Red Summer, however, the union — for the sake of its own survival — had begun to realize that only with the solidarity of all workers, black and white, would it be able to make demands of the bosses.
The Great War not only diminished the available workforce but emboldened the unions — particularly after the Russian Revolution. The packers thrived on fat government contracts to feed the troops overseas, but they pocketed the profits and gave the workers piddling increases in wages. With the industry considered an “essential service,” the government decided not to risk further labor agitation and the possibility of a strike, and assigned a federal judge to act as adjudicator between management and the workers. More radical elements of the union (personified in The Killing Floor by prolific character actor Clarence Felder) pushed for direct confrontation with the bosses, but the forces of compromise prevailed — until the war ended.
With the return of the soldiers from overseas (including Frank’s childhood friend Thomas), many of the union workers are laid off, starting with the black laborers, and their jobs are given to those coming back from the war. As wartime production winds down, jobs become scarcer, money gets tighter, and the simmering tensions between the white working class and Southern-transplant blacks boils over into one of the biggest and bloodiest race riots in American history. This is the backdrop for The Killing Floor’s dramatic conclusion. As Frank makes hard choices to feed his family, the solidarity he’s come to expect from his union comrades proves to be far more fragile than he’d imagined, and he sees all the organizing work he’d done crumble against the pressures of racism and desperation.
The Killing Floor is a shockingly well-made movie considering its budgetary restraints and production difficulties. Duke — likely familiar to many as an actor, with notable roles in Predator and Mandy — is a gifted director with an excellent eye for dramatic staging, and he combines terrific on-location filming with deftly integrated historical footage. The brilliant playwright Leslie Lee was hired to write the screenplay, and it’s generally quite successful, with voice-over narration that manages to escape sounding clunky, and dialogue that is poetic and elegant without ever leaning too far into theatricality or staginess. The score, by the late composer Elizabeth Swados, balances tense and evocative background music with period jazz and Polish music, which Frank finds strangely appealing when he visits the homes of his union brothers. The whole film has an epic sweep, making you feel the whole weight of its turbulent three-year span in the space of a tight three hours.
The cast, too, is nearly perfect from beginning to end. Frank is played with emotion, intelligence, and sensitivity by jack-of-all-trades Damien Leake (also an athlete who was the first to refrain from standing for the national anthem during sporting events, decades before Colin Kaepernick), and the film features some of the most outstanding and reliable black character actors of the 1980s, including Mary Alice as Miss Lilah Dean, who Frank pays to write letters home to his wife (an impossibly young-looking Alfre Woodard), and the craggy, imposing Moses Gunn as Heavy Williams, a proud and stubborn black worker at the slaughterhouse who becomes a paid agitator for the bosses. It’s also stocked with an array of Chicago theater-scene regulars who would go on to become better known in later years, including Dennis Farina, John Mahoney, and, in a brief cameo as a National Guard commander, Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine.
What really pulls the movie together to the degree that it’s arguably the unifying character of The Killing Floor, however, is the city of Chicago itself.
Still on the Killing Floor
Duke filmed on location just as the city elected its first-ever black mayor, the legendary Harold Washington, who helped supply the film with extras; he discusses the elation and sense of victory Washington’s win brought to the city’s black population in the Criterion interview. (Washington triumphed over elements of the notorious political machine built by Richard J. Daley — who, in one of the eerie echoes that sound throughout the film, had taken part as a teenager in the 1919 race riot as a member of an equally notorious Irish street gang.)
In one scene, Frank and Thomas ride the train north and can almost physically feel the relief of escaping from the oppression and cruelty of the Jim Crow South and arriving in the “promised land” of Chicago. Frequently, reference is made to the city’s Black Belt, and its status as the de facto capital city of black America. But as times get tough and tensions are stretched to the breaking point, Chicago’s segregation, inequality, and reaction turn Frank’s heaven into a hell.
The new restoration (and credit should not be withheld from the UCLA team, which has done incredible work in the last decade restoring many forgotten classics of American cinema, particularly the work of black directors) is a vast improvement over the degraded videotape copies that have been circulating since the film was released. But what’s most compelling about The Killing Floor isn’t its artistic qualities — it’s how the film tells a story that hasn’t lost relevance, about a subject that is now a century in the past.
In his Criterion interview, Duke mentions how important the spirit of Harold Washington’s victory was to everyone involved with the filming. Now, current Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, a black neoliberal leader as disappointing as Washington was inspiring, wrangles to build a new power base out of the ruins of the old Daley machine, even as younger and hungrier members of the city council seek to replicate Washington’s unlikely coalition win. The city is still wracked with labor struggles: Chicago teachers, transit workers, health care workers, and hospitality employees have all flexed their muscles in recent years, with UPS drivers, railroad employees, and service industry workers likely to follow. Even the Amalgamated Meat Cutters is still around, in the form of the United Food and Commercial Workers — which finds itself facing significant decisions if the proposed merger of Kroger and Albertson’s leads to a major change in Chicago’s large grocery stores.
Though the stockyards are still a big part of Chicago, they no longer dominate the city’s industrial base the way they did at the time of The Killing Floor. (The film has its sentimental moments, but none of them apply to the ugly business of running a slaughterhouse.) Much of that work has been exported to the Great Plains states, where corporate giants employ low-wage, nonunion labor in right-to-work states to do the same jobs, often by immigrant labor from Mexico and Central America.
But even here the film is prescient. The National Labor Relations Board is heavily lobbied by the meatpacking industry to combat unionization, just as the federal government inserted itself between labor and management in 1919. Right-to-work laws began to proliferate just as The Killing Floor was being filmed, crippling the union movement following Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike. This week, Illinois passed the Workers’ Rights Amendment, which makes passing right-to-work laws impossible in the state. And the workers at the new stockyards and slaughterhouses are being played by the bosses with the exact same tactics they used a hundred years ago: the stoking of racial division.
The working-class Mexican workers at meatpacking plants today are told by management exactly what the black workers were told in The Killing Floor: Don’t risk your job for the union. Don’t give up the good thing you have for a pipe dream. And don’t pay those exorbitant union dues for what their lackeys call, in the same language used by the agitator Heavy Williams, “a white man’s fight.” Fueling resentment between groups of workers by race — white workers against black workers, black workers against Latino workers, and so on ad nauseum — still happens every day, with complaints of racism being amplified and exacerbated by management to divide the working class.
Duke realizes this and does not shy away from it; he shows that the black workers received far less pay for doing the same grueling work as the white ones, and even some of the most stalwart union men are quick to forsake solidarity when old prejudices flare up or there’s a choice between who gets one of the few jobs left.
But, as he says in the Criterion interview in reference to how the integration of the AMC shifted the racial dynamic of the union movement (and, by extension, the Civil Rights Movement in general), “we can get more together than we can apart. When they finally realized that they had more in common than they had difference, it changed the whole union system in America.”
The Only Way Out
The Killing Floor does not deliver a tidy, happy ending or a great triumph of good over evil. History rarely does. The film ends on a note that is, if not one of complete defeat, is at least a Pyrrhic victory, with the union largely broken, the solidarity that had replaced racial animosity shattered, and the union’s inroads into Chicago’s black population set back by two decades.
In its unforgettable last scene (which I won’t spoil here), though, it reminds us that solidarity isn’t just one option for cutting through the racist reality of American capitalism. It’s the only way out of it. As Robert Bedford (Wally Taylor), Frank’s mentor and the oldest black worker in the union, calmly responds to Heavy’s anti-union mockery, “Any worker who doesn’t join the cause of organized labor has a grudge against himself.”