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The Killing Floor’ Gets New 4K Restoration

Bill Duke’s 1984 PBS film about unions and race now streaming

Photo credit: Film Movement

Frank Custer (Damien Leake) becomes a labor organizer as the Chicago stockyards try to create an interracial union in "The Killing Floor."

Companion viewing

Unions

"Salt of the Earth" (1954)

"I'm All Right Jack" (1959)

"Harlan County, USA" (1976)

"Matewan" (1987)

"Bread and Roses" (2000)

Racism and protest

"Intruder in the Dust" (1949)

"The Spook Who Sat by the Door" (1973)

"Do the Right Thing" (1989)

"The Glass Shield" (1994)

"Rosewood"(1997)

"Just Mercy" (2019)

"I am Not Your Negro" (2017)

"The Killing Floor" looks to union organizing by Chicago's slaughterhouse workers during World War I. The 1984 made-for-TV movie has been digitally restored and is now available on streaming services and proves surprisingly topical.

Black films streaming

COVID-19 has forced cinemas to close and now protests are focusing attention on issues of race. One unexpected consequence of this convergence of event is that movie distributors are highlighting films by black filmmakers and making them more readily available to audiences.

Films have the ability to use creative means to present another perspective by putting you in someone else's shoes in the hopes of enlightening viewers to issues that they may not be aware of or to simply provide a compelling means of bringing issues and ideas into a broader conversation.

As protests continue through the U.S. and even the world in response to the death of George Floyd, films (both by black filmmakers and ones focused on black issues) that can shed light on racism, injustice and protest are being made available on streaming services.

"I am Not Your Negro" (on Kanopy) allows James Baldwin to speak eloquently and passionately about race. Ava DuVernay's "Selma," Destin Cretton's "Just Mercy," George Tillman, Jr.'s "The Hate U Give" are easily available on iTunes as well as some other subscriptions services. Julie Dash's "Daughter of the Dust" is available on Criterion while PBS is offering the documentary "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross." And DuVernay's "13th" is free on YouTube.

Photo credit: Film Movement

Poster art for the release of the new 4K restoration of "The Killing Floor."

'The Killing Floor' Re-released

For "The Killing Floor," actor-turned-director Bill Duke was drawn to the true story of black and white slaughterhouse workers trying to build an interracial union for the first time in Chicago’s stockyards. But those in power used race to divide workers, which contributed to the powder keg of tensions that erupted into the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.

There are a number of scenes that resonate today. There is a scene of union organizers trying to rally workers and agitators disrupt the event by throwing bricks. I know that union organizers are not known for always being peaceful themselves, but this particular incident shows how easy it is for anyone to disrupt a public gathering especially if there is political gain to be had by doing so. So as people in both the news media and on social media can sometimes lump peaceful protesters and violent looters together, it is important to think about how that violence can occur and who is responsible for it.

The film focuses on the union and how a young black man, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), fresh from Mississippi is brought into the union and becomes an organizer trying convince fellow blacks to join despite racial tensions. But the packing companies knew it could heighten racial tensions between blacks and the white immigrant community, and to divide blacks against each other all in an effort to weaken their voice, destroy the union and keep their profit margins up during the war. "The Killing Floor" (the title refers to where the animals are slaughtered and the film is graphic in showing it) shows how the mistreatment of these workers — often using blacks to cross strike lines — fed into the sense of unrest and unease in Chicago.

What has become known as the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 began on July 27 and continued through Aug. 3 leaving 23 blacks and 15 whites dead and many more injured. The event often cited as the cause of the violence was the drowning of an African American teenager named Eugene Williams who had crossed the invisible line in the water at 29th Street and unintentionally entered the whites only area.

In a voiceover narration about the riots, Custer says: "Some blocks near the stockyards had been burned down. A lot of folks was homeless, some folks said colored folks done it but that didn’t make no sense no colored man could have gotten close enough to set that fire even the police said it was white men in black face but I guess it didn’t matter cause folks was going to believe what they wanted."

This is another instance of a scene having a new resonance in an era of "fake" news and misinformation. The film also reminds us once again of how long African Americans have suffered from racism and how that racism could be fanned by those in power to suit their needs.

Made for PBS’ American Playhouse series in 1984, "The Killing Floor" marked Duke's directing debut and he would go on to make many feature films and direct numerous TV show episodes including ones for "Miami Vice," "Hill Street Blues," and "The Twilight Zone."

"The Killing Floor" has a made for TV movie feel, meaning it's not as glossy as a major studio film nor as gritty and an indie, but Duke finds power in the performances of his actors. There is a scene between Custer and a black co-worker Heavy Williams (the great Moses Gunn) who maintains a firm anti-union stance that allows each side to express rage. Then in contrast, Mary Alice plays a woman who gently and subtly encourages Custer to not settle "for crumbs" when there is plenty of bread out there.

More than a quarter of a century after it was made, Duke's "The Killing Floor" remains a compelling piece of history that’s well worth watching during our current social unrest.

Information on where to stream the film is available at Film Movement.

In addition, I am posting daily black filmmaker spotlights on my Cinema Junkie Facebook page as well as on my Instagram and Twitter. I'm doing this because film is what I know, and where I can share examples that I have learned from. and any time I can shine a spotlight on great filmmakers of any kind, I try to do that. Plus I firmly believe in the power of art to encourage thoughtful discussion on any topic.

Listen to this story by Tarryn Mento.

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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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