THE VILLAGE VOICE
October 28, 1985
Charnel House Blues
"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.