“THE KILLING FLOOR”— Remembering a Terrible Event


Remembering a Terrible Event

Amos Lassen

“The Killing Floor” is a chronicle of the first big attempt made by Chicago slaughterhouse workers to fight against workplace abuse by joining an interracial union before the horrific race riots of 1919. Directed Bill Duke “The Killing Floor” originally premiered on PBS network’s acclaimed series “American Playhouse” in 1984. It was made three years after President Reagan made the decision to fire eleven thousand striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981 and went on to receive the Special Jury Award from the Sundance Film Festival. It is even timelier today that when it was released 36 years ago. 

Mississippi sharecropper Frank Custer (Damien Leake) opens the film with a voice-over narration and we see him leave 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 go to Chicago as just two of thousands of southern Black citizens who ventured north to where jobs were plentiful during the first world war. 

The two men were eager to find work in the industrialized “promised land” and then send for their families to come and join them as well. They report to the stockyard of one of the city’s five huge meatpacking plants and it takes him a little while to realize why certain coworkers stick together in packs. They become aware of 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 but 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. Even though Frank does well, things don’t work out the same way for Thomas. After getting badly beaten on his first day at the plant, Thomas decides to give up that pursuit, he enlists in the first world war instead. 

The film has been 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 that are depicted and covered in the movie.  The film gives us chills at its ending. We learn what happened to all involved. It 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. 
Watching the film today in the midst of the Covid-10 pandemic, we realize that workers in meatpacking plants are some of the hardest hit by the disease. I want to learn more about the history of the industry’s union over the last hundred years. 

Tensions escalated after World War I ends, and the white men who fought in the war expected to get their jobs back, and the bosses of the meatpacking industry find new ways to continue a “divide and conquer” strategy based on racism and ethnic discrimination  in order to keep a labor pool always willing to work for less. This culminates into what would become known as “The Chicago Race Riot of 1919,” and as Joshua advocates fighting on the streets in retaliation for whites burning down their neighborhood and killing of African American men, women, and children. Custer wants to believe that a union that preached universal brotherhood will still look out for his interests, especially now, as he’s unable to work in the stockyards because he can no longer safely walk through white neighborhoods to get there. 

We see that events depicted in this film that happened over 100 years ago, have helped to shape contemporary realities. These events and issues, the intersecting of labor, class, race, ethnicity, and immigration, are brought into clarity. It was a time when men worked in the Chicago Stockyards for low pay and abhorrent conditions and were kept separated from each other as the meatpacking bosses practiced “divide and conquer” strategies rooted in exploiting racial and ethnic prejudice. The labor movement fought for eight-hour work days and time-and-a-half for overtime work while also preaching for a universal brotherhood of workers that transcended racial and ethnic exploitation.  The reality was changed by what became known as “The Chicago Race Riot of 1919,” that began when an African American child, while swimming in Lake Michigan, accidentally ended up crossing into a “whites only” beach, and was pelted with rocks until he drowned. 

Everything about “The Killing Floor” is first-rate. The acting is magnificent across the board, and the story doesn’t takes on complexities and ugly truths. We see how events like these continue to haunt the American backstory, the development of the labor movement, and where we go from here as we work for a more just society. 


Introduction by director Bill Duke; Q&A with Damien Leake and Elsa Rassbach

Pandemic Era Conversations with Damien Leake, Clarence Felder and Bill Duke

The Making of The Killing Floor: Interview with producer-writer Elsa Rassbach

Booklet with new essays by Professor James R. Barrett, University of Illinois and Professor Joe William Trotter, Jr., Carnegie Mellon University 

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