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May 9, 1985


By Michel Chion (English translation from the original French)

…THE  KILLING FLOOR, by Bill Duke, is not a police thriller as its title  might suggest, but a film or television document about the problems of  the blacks, who during the First World War leave the South to work in  the stockyards of Chicagoand there encounter the question of unionism.  Their dilemma: whether to stay among blacks, isolated from the whites  and without control of their destiny, or whether to join the union  formed by the whites, with all the dangers of manipulation, of  inequality, and of compromise which that entails. If the film argues for  the union, it is not without having first exposed at length the  arguments for and against. It is so well told, dramatized, and  fictionalized through the historical case of a young, well-intentioned  black unionist, Frank Custer, that one follows all these problems with  great interest, so that after screening, one could almost summarize in  ten points all that one has learned about the workers in Chicago’s  stockyards. Refusing to “romanticize” and to overdo the sentimental  scenes, the narrative is mostly made of a series of oral confrontations,  where the magnificent black voices speak passionately, with simple and  worthy words, in terms everyone can understand, about questions which  are both very specific to time and place at the same time quite eternal.  While recognizing that the impeccable (“perfect”) production of THE  KILLING FLOOR is completely impersonal, one can’t help but admiring in  this work the American pedagogical genius in its way of portraying the  labor problems of packers and butchers--in addressing, through each  spectator, the entire world.

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