Based on actual events and characters, the film's story is told by Frank Custer (Damien Leake), a young Black migrant from Mississippi who lands a job on "the killing floor" of a giant Chicago meatpacking plant — one of tens of thousands of southern Blacks who journeyed to the industrial north during World War One, hoping for more racial equality.
While struggling to bring his wife (Alfre Woodard) and children "up north", Frank joins with European immigrant workers in a pioneering effort to build the first interracial union in the Stockyards and is confronted by deadly long-standing racial and ethnic tensions -- stoked by management and culminating in the notorious Chicago "Race Riot" of 1919 -- as he attempts to unite the workers.
The Killing Floor was directed by Bill Duke as his first feature from a screenplay co-written by Obie Award-winning Black dramatist Leslie Lee and producer-writer Elsa Rassbach, working in close collaboration with leading historians such as Prof. David Brody.
“The Killing Floor is a truly compelling, blistering, and vital historical document.”
Jen Johans, Film Intuition
"We need them . . .
but they need US! "
“The Killing Floor is thrillingly watchable, profoundly stirring and perennially relevant. And it’s an exemplary exercise in how to dramatize history and ideas.”
– David Bax, Battleship Pretension
“A vast amount of research clearly went into writing it. The Killing Floor presents, in fascinating dialectical wrangles, the large-scale political events of the time: an original and fruitful template for the cinematic analysis of social systems and confrontation with history.”
– Richard Brody, The New Yorker
Many reviewers have praised The Killing Floor for its approach towards illuminating history through drama and for the strong sense of authenticity it achieves. At the same time, the film uses self-reflective (distancing effect) techniques, as Brody notes elsewhere in his review, both "to set off the dramatizations as latter-day artifices and to verify them as authentic parts of the historical record."
A key theme of the film is racial and class solidarity: both how essential it is for progress to be made and how difficult it often is to achieve. Likewise, solidarity was key in the development of the content and style of the film through an unusual collaboration of African-American and white artists, scholars and intellectuals. And solidarity also played an important role in making the production of this ambitious historical drama financially viable on a very modest public television budget.