Interview Elsa Rassberg
The Killing Floor co-writer Elsa Rassbach talks about the significance of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919
JULY 23, 2019 2:10 PM
by MICHAEL GLOVER SMITH
One of the most important cinematic events taking place in Chicago this year is the Logan Center’s preview screening of the 4K restoration of The Killing Floor. The locally made film, which originally aired on PBS in 1984 before screening at prestigious festivals like Sundance and Cannes, tells the true story of a poor black Southerner, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), who migrates from the rural south to Chicago in the early 20th century to work in a slaughterhouse. Upon arrival, he becomes involved in labor struggles involving a controversial and newly formed union, and eventually witnesses the notorious Race Riot of 1919. It's an important history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one. The screening will take place on July 27 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the riot and will be followed by a panel discussion with the film’s producer and co-writer Elsa Rassbach as well as community and labor activists. We spoke with Rassbach in advance of the screening.
Tell me about your background as an artist and activist and the production company you founded that produced The Killing Floor. How did you end up making an independent film about this important chapter in Chicago history?
Though my family was neither left-wing nor union, I’ve been drawn to the struggle for social justice ever since high school, when we engaged in sit-ins at Woolworth’s in my hometown, Denver, in protest against the firm’s segregationist policies in the South. Following college in the U.S., I studied at the film academy in West Berlin, where people scoffed at the saying that “messages are for Western Union” and honored the work of politically committed artists like Berthold Brecht. My first short films were on feminist themes, but I soon developed a passionate interest in untold stories of history. I returned to the U.S. in 1972 and began reading more and more about the fascinating history of working people, who have played such an important role in our history, for which they have never been recognized. I found it astounding that I had never learned about these stories in school or college. Meanwhile I had been hired at the public television station in Boston, WGBH, to work on the first seasons of the NOVA series, and I received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a public television series on the history of the American labor movement. In William Tuttle’s book about the Chicago Race Riot I happened upon a footnote in which I discovered the two main characters in The Killing Floor: Frank Custer and Heavy Williams. These two black men, who both worked on the killing floor of a Chicago slaughterhouse, were testifying before a white federal judge, and the two were entirely at odds with each other in how they viewed the causes of the mounting racism from which they were both suffering. I was drawn to the complexity – the race riot was of course not just about black people vs. white people. So I ordered from the National Archives the entire transcript of the hearing in which the two testified. All of the characters who work on “the killing floor” in our film, both black and white, leapt out of the thousands of pages of 9
testimony by a group of workers at the Wilson Meatpacking Company in June of 1919. I knew immediately that a film about them had to be made. I felt that the film needed not only to be dramatically compelling but also to be as accurate as possible – people should know this really happened. In the film the names of the main characters have remained the same as in the original testimony. And I founded a nonprofit production company to tell this story.
Leslie Lee was already an Obie Award-winning playwright when you engaged him to write the screenplay but what made you feel that Bill Duke, a terrific director who at that point had only directed television episodes, was the right person to helm this project?
Before I met Bill, I had worked closely with playwright Ron Milner and then with Leslie Lee on the script. Of the several directors I considered, Bill had the clearest and deepest understanding of what we wanted to achieve with the screenplay. I felt he had a visceral relationship with the characters. Beyond his experience directing action-packed television episodes, such as Hill Street Blues, Bill is also an alumnus of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, which is known for producing plays about complex, sometimes disturbing, and often ignored aspects of the black experience and the American experience. Leslie Lee later became the company’s executive director. And many of the fine actors in the film had also been involved in the Negro Ensemble Company, including Moses Gunn, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Henderson, and Mary Alice. I felt that Bill was right for this project, and he even surpassed my expectations. He was able to handle the complex logistics of the film, which among other things involved shooting in a real killing floor where cattle were still being slaughtered in Chicago. He was also able to hold to the emotional core of this complex material throughout, directing fine, subtle and compelling performances that give the twists and turns of the story authenticity and dramatic power.
When I interviewed Duke a few years ago, he mentioned that Harold Washington was elected at the same time shooting on the film began, which felt auspicious for the production. Can you talk a little about what the atmosphere was like in Chicago, politically and otherwise, at that time?
I was so absorbed in producing the film that I was not out and about much in Chicago. But I was quite astounded and grateful at how much support we received to make this film. It was support that we desperately needed, because we really did not have enough money to do what we were trying to do. People who had worked on Harold Washington’s election campaign organized hundreds of volunteers who were willing to be extras in the film, and a steelworkers local on the South Side led by Ed Sadlowski did the same. Per an agreement with the Chicago entertainment unions, virtually everyone who had a paid job on the film deferred half of normal guild or union wages to make the production feasible on our scant budget. Not only the entire cast, but also the lighting crew, the makeup and hair stylists, and the Teamster drivers, among others, deferred half their wages, and we on the production staff did the same. In 1983, the workers at the Lincoln Meat Corporation in Chicago, where we shot the killing floor scenes, were mainly southern blacks or Poles just like the killing floor workers in 1919. They volunteered for many hours to teach our actors the ropes of working in a slaughterhouse. It was two and a half years since Ronald Reagan had taken office as President. People were already feeling the impact of the plans to decimate the American labor movement, and to some supporting the film was one way of pushing back. 10
The screening at the Logan Center will take place on the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Race Riot. Do you see any parallels between the era depicted in your film and the present day? Are there lessons in the film that you feel are particularly relevant to contemporary viewers?
I don’t know about lessons, but The Killing Floor explores an era that does have some important parallels to our own time. U.S. unions had been pretty much crushed in the 1890s. The film is set twenty-five years later, during and after World War I, when people were still searching for a way to reorganize and develop some bargaining power – for the sake of human dignity and democracy as well as to improve material conditions. When people do not have their own strong organizations bringing them together in a spirit of solidarity, competition for "the crumbs" begins. In the battle for scant resources, people can easily be set against each other, and racism mounts. Following the severe attacks on the labor movement that began in the McCarthy Era and have intensified in the 1980s until this day, we are now experiencing a truly frightening rise in racism reminiscent of 1919. This is happening not only in the U.S., but also in Europe, where migrants and refugees from the Global South are competing for resources in northern cities. It is important to realize that while the protagonists in The Killing Floor were not able to prevail in their struggle for solidarity in 1919, their work sowed the seeds for important victories only 15 years later, in the 1930s, when benefits and reforms were won that we still enjoy today. Now we are in a time when we have a long way to go to rebuild the strength of the people’s organizations. Both courage and patience are called for.