THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

On PBS, a tale of racial struggle

By David Bianculli

Frank Custer was a  black sharecropper who left the South in 1917 to find work in  "the  promised land" of Chicago. The Killing Floor, tonight's installment of  PBS's American playhouse,"tells his true story--and tells it very, very  well.

The Killing Floor (Channel 12 at 9) uses Custer, played by Damien Leake,  as both hero and narrator. "The war come, and all of a sudden there was  jobs up north," Custer says, beginning his tale. It's a tale that  starts slowly, but the pace quickens once Custer gets a job in a  meatpacking plant.

When Custer enters that eight-story building, he steps into another  world--a dark and dismal one. On every floor, workers are slaughtering,  butchering and processing cattle by the hundreds. The stench is  inescapable, the work areas overcrowded, the conditions deplorable.  

"Everybody turning that cow into little bits and pieces, "Custer  describes the scene,  "and they didn't waste nothin'. "He starts work in  one of the worst areas, with one of the worst jobs--cleaning blood off   "the killing floor, "where the animals are slaughtered.

But by the time The Killing Floor is over, Custer has risen to the rank  of butcher, joined the local union and become a vocal advocate of  workers' rights. His advocacy, at one point, threatens to lead to  Custer's last stand: As the drama unfolds, the issue of unionism leads  to the Chicago race riots of 1919


To its credit,   "American Playhouse" has mounted many productions dealing with issues of  prejudice; For Us, The Living and The File on Jill Hatch, like The  Killing Floor, concentrate on the bigoted cruelty facing blacks at  various points in this country’s history. The Killing Floor, though, is  the most effective of the three.

The Killing Floor works so well chiefly because it avoids the usual  mistakes of the TV docudrama. Ins tead of overloading its cast with  “box-office” names, The Killing Floor features an even mixture of young  and veteran talent.

Instead of photographing and lighting every scene in standard "Love  Boat" fashion, director of photography Bill Birch allows the settings to  dictate the mood. Consequently, the bars are dark, the homes dreary,  the "killing floor" a shadowy cave.

Most important, writers Leslie Lee and Elsa Rassbach allow their heroes  to have flaws, and give their villains the courage of their convictions.  Custer, the principled protagonist, nearly has an affair before his  wife joins him in Chicago; Heavy Williams, the aptly named antagonist of  The Killing Floor, steadfastly refuses to support the union--but does  so because of a firm and rational set of beliefs.

There's a lot to like about The Killing Floor, especially its  performances. Leake, who starred in the "American Playhouse" production  of Medal of Honor Rag, is excellent as Custer, and Moses Gunn, as  Williams, squeezes a few extra drops of life out of every scene in which  he appears.


Alfre Woodard (a  nominee for the best-supporting-actress Oscar for Cross Creek) has  little to do as Custer's wife, but in her few scenes does very well. Of  the other performers, standouts include Ernest Rayford (as Thomas  Joshua, the embittered war veteran) and Mary Alice  (as the older woman  who encourages Custer’s dream to better himself).

Viewers of The Killing Floor should be aware, however, of two things.  One is that the film contains brief but grisly scenes of the actual  slaughtering process. Such scenes are certainly not gratuitous: By  including them, and by filming on location in Chicago's Lincoln Meat  plant and at other actual sites, the movie conveys a credibility that  would have been unattainable on a Hollywood sound stage. Nevertheless,  the scenes are pretty tough to take.   

But by the time The Killing Floor is over, Custer has risen to the rank  of butcher, joined the local union and become a vocal advocate of  workers' rights. His advocacy, at one point, threatens to lead to  Custer's last stand: As the drama unfolds, the issue of unionism leads  to the Chicago race riots of 1919