Praised by The New Yorker as "a revelatory historical drama" and by The Village Voice as the most “clear-eyed account of union organizing on film,” THE KILLING FLOOR (1984/1985) is the first feature film directed by Bill Duke and explores a little-known true story of an African American migrant in his struggle to help build an interracial union in the Chicago Stockyards. The screenplay by Obie Award-winner Leslie Lee is from an original story by producer Elsa Rassbach and is based on actual characters and events, tracing ethnic and class conflicts seething in the city’s giant slaughterhouses, when management efforts to divide the workforce fuel racial tensions that erupt in the deadly Chicago Race Riot of 1919.
Damien Leake stars as Frank Custer, a young black sharecropper from Mississippi who lands a job on "the killing floor" of a meatpacking plant — one of tens of thousands of southern blacks who journeyed to the industrial north during World War One, hoping for more racial equality. Frank finally succeeds in bringing his wife Mattie (Alfre Woodard) and family up north, but when he decides to support the union cause, his best friends from the South, distrustful of the white-led union, turn against him.
The film was shot in Chicago in 1983 by a small indie production firm in the midst of the union-busting Reagan Era just as Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington, was elected. The filmmakers were advised by a team of prominent scholars led by renowned labor historian David Brody. The filmmakers drew on the immense talent of local Chicago union crews and guild actors and enjoyed an outpouring of community support. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, foundations, corporations and dozens of national and local unions, THE KILLING FLOOR premiered on PBS’ American Playhouse series in 1984 to rave reviews. In 1985 it was invited as a theatrical film to many festivals, including Cannes, and won the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. THE KILLING FLOOR, is a “classic study in class hate, greed and stubborn idealism. You won’t forget it” (Newsday).
New 4K restoration. Laboratory services by UCLA Film & Television Archive Digital Media Lab; Audio Services by Deluxe Entertainment Services Group, Inc.; Digital Color Grading by Planemo (Berlin) and Alpha-Omega digital (Münich). Special thanks to Elsa Rassbach and the Sundance Institute Collection at UCLA Film & Television Archive.