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March 11, 1987

Faith in progress

When the end credits roll on THE KILLING FLOOR (Cert 15: 118 mins) they  must carry the name of very labour union in America, and some overseas,  too.  

All of them divvied up to make this splendid looking and stirring film--the very drip feed of financial faith.

It's rewarded not just by a historically true record of a violent era of  social and racial struggle in America--but in human terms, too, in  fascinatingly recreated period reality, in performances that combine  political faith with artistic force, in a story the like of which  mainline Hollywood hasn't tackled since the humanist talents of Kazan,  Huston, Ray and Jules Dassin were ousted by Spielberg's juvenilia or  arias to Stallone's narcissism.

Put simply, it's the story a man's divided loyalty--to his race (which is black) or his class (which is working).

Frank Custer (Damien Leake), a young black Southern sharecropper, quits  wife and family, the crickets in the night and the rooster that wakes  him at dawn, for World War One's top wages in the Zola-esque world of  blood and guts on "the killing floor" of the Chicago abattoirs.   

At first Frank's view is self-serving: he's come for the money and  resists the union activists' attempts to recruit him. But the migrant's  religious evangelism eventually lures him into the militant ranks of  immigrants from Eastern Europe.

It's a bitter  film, because defeat in a good cause is always bitter. But it's  immensely stirring, because the good loser has fought so well.

And it's a film of only postponed hope. Before Frank retreats into  submission, a cocky young urban black gives him a handclasp of  solidarity. In this new boy we recognize the militant crusader who'll  win the labour wars of the 1930s. A real crusading film.

But comes the Armistice, the returning white heroes displace Frank and  his likes from their jobs. The bosses take back what they reluctantly  gave. The Government turns a stone-face and a deaf ear.   

Black quislings and provocateurs are sent to sow race hatred in the  union ranks and weaken the common cause. Dissension boils over into the  Chicago race riots of 1919.

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