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The Killing Floor

1984/1985 USA. 118 min.
Directed by Bill Duke. Screenplay by Leslie Lee, Story by Elsa Rassbach.
With Damien Leake, Alfre Woodward, Clarence Felder, Moses Gunn,
Dennis Farina, Ernest Rayford.

Praised by The Village Voice as the most "clear-eyed account of union organizing on film” and by The New Yorker as "a revelatory historical drama," this Sundance prizewinning film explores in rigorously researched historical detail the struggle of Southern black migrants and European immigrants to build an interracial labor movement in the years leading up to the Chicago "Race Riot” of 1919.

Conceived and executive produced by Elsa Rassbach as the pilot for her planned series about American workers, The Killing Floor was co-written by playwright Leslie Lee, developed from Rassbach’s factually based story, and directed by Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem, Deep Cover) as his first feature-length film.  Heading a sterling ensemble cast, Damien Leake and Ernest Rayford play a pair of African American sharecroppers who flee the hatred and poverty of the Deep South only to end up in dangerous slave-wage jobs in a Chicago slaughterhouse and pitted against each other after one joins the white-led union that the other distrusts.  




Special screening (Sondervorführung OmU deutsch):

Zeughauskino, Berlin (2022)  deutsche Beschreibung


North America

• 4K theatrical premiere: Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago (2019)

• Virtual cinema premiere: Film Forum in New York (2020), followed by virtual screenings in ca. 100 cinemas in North America

• New York 4K theatrical premiere: The 18th Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) International Festival of Film Preservation (2022)

• Cable: Turner Classic Movies

• Streaming premiere: The Criterion Channel

• Further streaming: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Kanopy, Mubi, Film Movement

• Blu-ray & DVD: Amazon and Film Movement, among others.


In 2019 Made in U.S.A. Productions, Inc. completed the 4K digital restoration from the original 16mm negatives and sound track, working in conjunction with UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Sundance Institute and supervised by Elsa Rassbach with technical support from the UCLA Archive Digital Lab, Alpha-Omega digital in Munich, Planemo post-production lab in Berlin, and Deluxe Entertainment Services Group in Los Angeles.

Subtitles are available in French, German and Spanish.


In 2019 Made in U.S.A. Productions licensed the North American distribution rights exclusively to the New York film distributor Film Movement (President, Michael E. Rosenberg) for a period of eight years.

The U.S. non-profit firm Made in U.S.A. Productions, Inc., founded by Elsa Rassbach in 1983, holds all rights to the film, its elements, and its 4K restoration in perpetuity throughout the world.


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! "

Mattie Frank downsouth


Frank Custer

Mattie Custer

Austin 'Heavy' Williams

Bill Bremer

Thomas Joshua



Producer - Writer


Director of Photography

Production Designer

custer and wife

“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 

Interview with co-writer and producer Elsa Rassbach

by Michael Glover Smith, Timeout

Interview with director Bill Duke

by Stephen Saito, The Moveable Fest


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. 

Making of

International Sales:

Elsa, Rassbach, President

MADE IN U.S.A. Productions, Inc.*

+49 170 738 1450

*a nonprofit corporation

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