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October 28, 1985

Charnel House Blues

By D.E.

"The search for a  usable past." That’s the title the Black Filmmakers Foundation has  chosen for it’s three-part "Dialogues with Black Filmmakers" series, and  it’s an odd notion to hear in this absent-minded country: that history  can be put to practical use. (A scan of the BFF board of directors turns  up heavy mid-70s Yale representation; score one for Afro-American  Studies.) Over three nights, the BFF presents two half-hour  documentaries on Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington; the saga  of Solomon Northup, a free Black fiddle player in New York who was  kidnapped and sold into slavery; and the story Frank Custer, organized  labor, and the bloody Chicago Race Riot of 1919. The series has its  clunkers, but the question it raises eclipses them: Where are the myths  to spark--and sustain--the next generations?

Lo, they’ve found a corker: The Killing Floor, about the clash between  blacks and immigrant whites in a World War I Chicago slaughterhouse--an  apt, cutthroat setting for a yarn that ends with both sides on the  street wielding bricks and knives and shotguns. It opens cheerfully.  During the war, when most young men are abroad, a black sharecropper,  Frank Custer (Damien Leake), leaves his family for the suddenly  plentiful job opportunities of the windy City. At the charnel- house,  where he finds work in the eponymous blood-and-bone shop, burly whites  like Bill Bremer (Clarence Felder) sharpen their butcher knives under  Frank’s nose, but he gets help from another Black, a strong, silent type  called Heavy Williams (Moses Gunn).

So far, so  routine--nasty whites (principally Poles, Slavs, and Germans) menace  noble blacks. But there’s a wild card. Frank is aggressively recruited  by the burgeoning union, which argues that its workers aren’t making a  living wage. "Mistah, I come up here to make a livin', not to join no  white man’s war,” says Frank, but in no time he’s a convert, then a  proselytizer. The whites, especially Bill Bremer, become brave allies;  and all’s right with the world when a judge decides to give the union an  eight-hour day and a hefty wage increase. (He’s especially moved by a  sweet Polish woman who has no money to buy herself a new hat.)

Now watch it all unravel. The unions want the "coloreds," but the  "coloreds" aren’t so quick to fork over their five dollars. This, of  course, gets them harassed, and the more they’re harassed, the less  likely they are to want to dance with the Poles and address them as  "brother."  And Frank finds himself in the middle: he’s convinced that  the union’s a wedge against the economic conditions that foster racism;  yet it’s clearly a racist collective, and his fellow butchers abandon it  in droves. His first defender, Heavy, takes to throwing bricks at him  when he speaks at rallies--Heavy might even be a management stoolie. And  when the war ends dand the boys come back, management chucks the union  contract, lays off the workers, and subtly encourages the two races to  fight it out themselves on the streets of Chicago

Damien Leake,  toothsome and goofy-looking, has a likable way of shrugging off his  lines that keeps the character from going mushy. It’s a terrific  performance: his Frank is simply cursed with common sense, and he’s  baffled by the pointless hatred whipped up around him.  The Killing  Floor swells, nay groans, with exhortatory speeches (and a wonderful  union-music pastiche by Elizabeth Swados). But it’s never agitprop: it’s  simply set in a tumultuous public arena, where every private gesture  and sentiment has ramifications for all. The Killing Floor has no  namby-pamby illusions about international brotherhood. One recalls  Brecht’s famous dictum--"First comes food, then comes morality”--as Bill  recites a fascinating history of workers versus workers under  management’s approving gaze: the Irish got there first, then the Germans  fought the Irish, the Bohemians fought the Germans, the Lithuanians  fought the Bohemians, the Poles fought the Lithuanians, and now the  "coloreds" are fighting the Poles. What’s a butcher to do? Maybe learn  the lessons of history, instead of sharpening a cleaver and taking to  the streets.

The Killing Floor  couldn’t have been made without large contributions from more than 40  unions. They weren’t allowed a peek at the script, but they did insist  on relatively costly union contracts for everyone involved. (These are  often waived on low-low-budget independent movies.) The terms of the  contract change with a theatrical release, and the snarl now, I gather,  will be over how much more the producers have to cough up for their  union workers-- to tell the story of the union to the masses. As Frank  Custer’s realized, sometimes you can't win.

Few American movies have this kind of reach. Executive producer Elsa  Rassbach, who worked on the story with black playwright Leslie Lee, was  educated in West Germany, and Brecht Lives in the jaunty narration that  accompanies speeded-up newsreel footage and in the filmmakers'  detachment--the way their characters act logically (if shortsightedly)  in response to dire economic conditions. I’ve seen no more clear-eyed  account of union organizing on film, but, as a result, this isn’t the  warmest picture--The Killing Floor won’t be a lump-in-the-throat, Norma  Rae sensation. Yet it has come a ways since its premiere, in the spring  of 1984, on PBS’s American Playhouse. It was shown to the jury at  Cannes; it has been picked up for theatrical release on London; and,  with luck, it will have limited theatrical engagements in the major  cities (Chicago first) in early 1986.

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