'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.