The Making of
Directed by Bill Duke & Produced by co-writer Elsa Rassbach
“The Killing Floor is a truly compelling, blistering, and vital historical document.”
– Jen Johans, Film Intuition
“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.
Premiering on PBS in the American Playhouse series in 1984, The Killing Floor was also the pilot production for producer and co-writer Elsa Rassbach's proposed public television series on the history of American workers, Made in U.S.A. In the series she planned to present ten dramatic films exploring experiences of working people of different races, ethnicities and genders in various times and places whose lives were impacted by industrialization. (A description of the proposed series is on the website of the distributor Film Movement under The Killing Floor > Media & Press Kits > Discussion Guide.)
In producing The Killing Floor, Rassbach worked in four separate phases, collaborating first with historians (ca. three years of research for the overall series), then working with leading African-American creative talent to bring the story to life: the acclaimed playwrights Ron Milner and Leslie Lee (ca. five years), then the director, Bill Duke (ca. three months), and then the editor John Carter (ca. seven months).
As was usual in Director's Guild public television contracts of that time, Duke was engaged for prep, principal photography and the first weeks of editing. As the series' executive producer, Rassbach had overall creative control, because she was setting the style for her proposed series via the pilot, as described by John J. O'Connor in his review of the television premiere of The Killing Floor for The New York Times in April 1984.