THE NEW YORK TIMES
TV Reviews; 'Killing Floor,' American Workers
By John J. O'Connor
PUBLIC TELEVISION'S ''American Playhouse'' series is stretching its acquisition boundaries a bit further these days in an effort to flesh out a full season. Tonight's presentation on Channel 13 at 9 o'clock is ''The Killing Floor,'' a two-hour film that is really a pilot for a proposed separate series about American workers.
The idea has been developed over several years by Elsa Rassbach, who, while working at Boston station WGBH-TV for several years, was part of the team that started ''Nova.'' ''The Killing Floor'' is a project of Public Forum Productions, an independent company that Miss Rassbach founded in 1977.
At the heart of ''The Killing Floor'' are the early efforts, taking place from 1917 to 1919, to unionize Chicago's giant meat-packing companies. With American soldiers marching off to World War I, there suddenly were jobs for those left behind - most notably, immigrants from Europe and poor black sharecroppers from the South. Among the sharecroppers were Frank Custer and Thomas Joshua, two young men who decided to seek a better life ''up North.'' The teleplay, written by Leslie Lee from a story by Miss Rassbach, is based on actual events and the names of the participants have not been changed
Played by Damien Leake, previously seen in the ''American Playhouse'' version of ''Medal of Honor Rag,'' Custer becomes the focal character, caught between a shifting pattern of conflicting forces. A quiet, thoughtful man, he simply wants to make enough money to bring his wife and children to Chicago and settle down to a reasonably normal life. The more outspoken Joshua (Ernest Rayford), unable to deal with overt prejudice, decides to go off to war. He will return, even more embittered, to tragedy.
At the meat factory, where Custer works in the slaughtering area known as the killing floor, the white workers, recognizing that there is strength only in numbers, are trying to recruit the largely reluctant blacks into the struggling union. One black faction, led by Heavy Williams (Moses Gunn), is adamantly opposed to anything proposed by whites. Custer, however, does join the union, making friends with the white ethnic workers and becoming a shop steward. Eventually, he finds himself confronting not only the company bosses but most of his black co-workers as well.
Nothing is resolved in this portrait of one man and a struggling union. It was not until the 1930's that the vision of a strong interracial union was realized. A postscript notes that he and several of the other figures in the film's confrontation had long since dropped out of sight. But ''The Killing Floor'' does an impressive job of outlining the issues and depicting the forces involved, forces that erupted in the bloody race riots of 1919.
Needless to say, the film's sympathy is entirely with the workers. The bosses are depicted as smooth shifty-eyed villains, pushing constantly to turn one worker faction against the other. It is not for nothing, obviously, that the underwriters of this presentation include several unions.
The film is a bit longer than need be. Presumably for purposes of dramatization, Custer gets involved, rather superfluously, with a couple of women, one of them being a supportive ''social shop'' owner played with a lovely touch of warmth by Mary Alice. But the period details by art director Maher Ahmad, the music by Elizabeth Swados and the strong cast, directed by William Duke, keep lifting ''The Killing Floor'' above the ordinary ''partisan'' film of this type. In particular, Mr. Leake, a talented and always ingratiating actor, provides a strong and intensely charged dramatic core. His wife is affectingly played by Alfre Woodard. This pilot certainly makes a strong case for an extended series.