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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.

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