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April 9, 1984

'Killing Floor': Not pretty, but powerful labor drama

By Marilyn Preston

"THE KILLING  FLOOR" is part of our nation's history--a fascinating and bloody episode  in the history of the U.S. labor movement--but it reaches us Tuesday as  drama, a powerful, personal drama about a brave man named Frank Custer  (Damien Leake) who left a poor sharecropper's life in the rural South to  come to Chicago and make a new life for himself and his family. The  year was 1917, the war was on, and blacks were making big money (21  cents) an hour) working in the stockyards.  

"If it weren't for the war," Custer tells us at the start of this  impressive two hours on "American Playhouse" at 9 p.m. on WTTW-Ch. 11,  "I never would have left the South for the promised Land."

He has to leave his family behind at first (Custer's wife Mattie, is  played by Alfre Woodard, who was nominated for an Oscar this year for  her work in "Cross Creek"), but he takes his pal Thomas (Ernest  Rayford), and the two of them find work in the slaughterhouses right  away. "I need one for the killing floor," the foreman says, shouting and  pointing at Frank. "You boy!" And Frank tells us: "That was the  sweetest 'you' I ever heard in my life."

"The Killing  Floor" goes on to document and explore the next couple of years in the  life of Frank Custer, a man who was involved in the earliest attempts to  organize workers in the Chicago stockyards.  It's not a pretty story,  but it's an important and provocative one, and it kicks off a proposed  (and still controversial) six-part series of dramatic films called "Made  in U.S.A." - "a series which explores the experiences of ordinary,  working Americans in the great epoch of America's industrialization  (1835-1945)," according to Elsa Rassbach, executive producer of the  project and the writer of "The Killing Floor" story. The script, by  Leslie, Lee is strong and moving and so are the performances especially  Damien Leake's.

THE JOB THAT Custer gets, on the killing floor, sweeping up the blood  and guts of butchered cows, is not a great one. His friend Thomas can't  take the work or the abuse from the Polish workers, from the German  workers, from the international mix of laborers that manned the  stockyards back in 1917-19. But Custer stays. Contrary to the advice of  another respected black (Moses Gunn), he even decides to join the union,  and that leads to a series of conflicts and crises that wind up pitting  Custer against many other black mEn who don't want to be in the union.

"He  is a black man standing against other black men for the sake of unity  among all workers, " writes history professor David Brody. "The tension  expressed therein--between race and class--constitutes one of the great  themes of American history, and it is the theme that is taken up and  explored in 'The Killing Floor'.'"

It is explored with dignity and style, weaving fact and dramatic detail  with actual film footage of Chicago in the late 1910s. The "Made in  U.S.A." series has been seven years in the making so far and is backed  by an unusual mix of funders: government, labor and corporations. This  particular episode ends just after the bloody race riot in Chicago in  1919, when the man known in court testimony as Frank Custer disappears  from public record. The stockyard unions don't really get underway, we  hear at the end, for another 20 years.

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