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.
Praised by The New Yorker as "a revelatory historical drama" and by The Village Voice as the most “clear-eyed account of union organizing on film,” The Killing Floor was shot on location in Chicago in 1983 by Rassbach's indie nonprofit production firm during the union-busting Reagan Era just as Chicago citizens elected their first Black mayor, Harold Washington.
In 1984 The Killing Floor premiered in the PBS American Playhouse series and at the Locarno Film Festival. In 1985 the film won the Special Jury Prize of the Sundance Film Festival and was an Official Selection of the 1985 Cannes Film Festival in the "La Semaine de la Critique" section. In 2021 The Killing Floor was once again an Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival -- this time in the Cannes Classics section in a new 4K restoration.
The 4K digital remastering of the 16mm negative was launched in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot and was supervised by Rassbach, working with UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Archive's Sundance Institute Collection. Licensed in 1919 to Film Movement for distribution in the US and Canada, the 4K film enjoyed a successful North American limited theatrical run, premiering in Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center shortly before the Covid pandemic. The 4K film was re-released as virtual cinema in 2020, premiering at Film Forum shortly after the murder of George Floyd. The Killing Floor has been selected by leading North American platforms such as the Criterion Channel, Turner Classic Movies, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Kanopy and many more and is now available for international distribution.