THE SACRAMENTO BEE
April 9, 1984
'The Killing Floor' Brings Human Touch To History
By John V. Hurst
Maybe what makes "The Killing Floor" so moving and absorbing is the way it succeeds in giving human scale and human impact to a moment in America's industrial history.
So don't be put off by word that "The Killing Floor” (9 tonight on KVIE, Channel 6) is a two-hour film about a failed attempt to found an interracial union in the Chicago stockyards of 1917-1919.
More accurately, this is the story of some of the people--people we are led to care about--whose lives involved them in that attempt. The title credits confirm they are, or were, the very people who actually lived it. The stuff of history--the overlying social, political, economic issues involved--emerge much as they must have emerged in the lives of those who were there; piecemeal, in human terms and dimensions.
"The war come," says black sharecropper Frank Custer over the opening credits, "and all of a sudden there was jobs up North.... Folks was making good money in Chicago."
"Good Money" was 21 cents an hour, enough to lure young Custer (played by Damien Leake) to part from his wife Mattie (Alfre Woodard) and their three children for the year it took him to earn their fare
We share Custer's initial wonder at the move ("If it wasn't for the war I probably would never have left the South") as well as his wonder at Chicago itself and at the comparative freedom blacks enjoyed there ("Right in the middle of Chicago, colored folks had built themselves their own city").
There are early hints of the racial tension that builds throughout the film. "You gotta be mighty careful how you step, "advises one of Custer's new co-workers about the white neighborhoods through which they must pass to get the stockyards.
There are racial tensions on the job, too. The proliferation of blacks in the workplace is grudgingly accepted by many whites as a consequence of wartime manpower of shortages, but these tensions are exacerbated by the white workers' efforts to establish a union.
The blacks are wary about the union--“It's a white man's war," counsels co-worker Heavy Williams (Moses Gun)--but the need for collective bargaining becomes ever clearer as the film depicts the unsafe and demeaning conditions under which both races work, as well as the way the meatpacking employers play one race against the other
What makes "The Killing Floor" memorable is its evocative re-creation of Chicago and the social milieu that existed there at the time of World War I. From the polemic tensions of the union meetings to Custer's visits to "Miss Dean's Social Shop" - to dictate, at 50 cents apiece, his letters home - the film breathes the color and life of the period.