The Killing Floor: The Feeble Strength of One, by David Bax
In this singular moment, there’s been a call for the privileged to elevate black voices in the culture. With that in mind, Film Movement Classics’ virtual cinema release of a new restoration of Bill Duke’s The Killing Floor couldn’t be more timely. A rich and crackling telling of a real historical flashpoint, it’s an argument for more black stories to be told by black artists.
In the “Red Summer” of 1919, white on black violence erupted across the country, mostly in cities where returning soldiers competed for a scarcity of jobs during an economic downturn. One of the most well known of these occurrences was the “Chicago race riot,” which resulted in 38 deaths and the burning of numerous homes. The Killing Floor dramatizes the circumstances leading up to and including these events, starting in 1917, when Frank Custer (Damien Leake) leaves Mississippi to look for work and, eventually, a new home and life for the family he temporarily left behind. He finds work in a slaughterhouse but finds that his conditions, prospects and pay improve only when he joins the union. But tension arises between Frank and his fellow black workers, who distrust the white-run union. Those who run the slaughterhouses are more than happy to agitate these racial hostilities if it’s to their benefit.
Leake is terrific, as is Ernest Rayford as Frank’s best friend who goes off to war in the film’s first act. The cast is full of names (and names-to-be) in roles big and small, including Alfre Woodard, Dennis Farina, Moses Gunn, Stephen Henderson, Ted Levine and John Mahoney. But Duke also proves himself a skillful documentarian. The opening titles advise us that names have not been changed and real life slaughterhouse footage is seamlessly spliced in (a warning to the squeamish). Leake’s voiceover doubles as narration for the engaging and informative newsreel-type segments that fill us in on what’s going on in the city.
What’s most impressive about Duke’s docudrama approach–and the screenplay by Leslie Lee, Ron Milner and Elsa Rassbach–is that he resists the temptation to craft a straightforward pro-union polemic. Gunn’s Heavy Williams, who becomes the mouthpiece for the black workers who resist the union, is depicted as thoughtful and compassionate, not foolish or misinformed. And The Killing Floor doesn’t shy away from showing us the ugly, ignorant and dangerous side of many of the white union members.
This melange works because Duke recognizes that he’s telling a story about a community–or, sometimes, a story about communities in conflict with one another–and communities are made up of people, who can be lovable, frustrating, heroic or flawed, occasionally all at once. As much as it’s an historical drama, The Killing Floor is also a movie about relationships, from Frank’s old friendship with Thomas (Rayford) to his new one with white union leader Bremer (Clarence Felder) to, most importantly, his deeply loving and respectful marriage to his wife, Mattie (Woodard).
The Killing Floor is thrillingly watchable, profoundly stirring and perennially relevant. And it’s a exemplary exercise in how to dramatize history and ideas.