The Killing Floor
September 19, 2022
1 Hr., 58 Mins.
t the beginning of The Killing Floor (1984), actor Bill Duke’s directing debut, lifelong friends Frank and Thomas (Damien Leake and Ernest Rayford) relocate from rural Mississippi, where they’ve been making a meager living, to Chicago for work. It’s 1917, and with many city men off fighting in the war, they want to seize the opportunity to fill temporarily abandoned careers. With plans to save enough money to
bring their wives and kids over to live with them, the friends eventually find meat-packing jobs. The plant immediately reveals itself a hell on Earth — a place where racial and ethnic hostilities are indivisible from the general brutality of the work. After one difficult day on the floor, Thomas decides he’d actually prefer to serve his country. Frank, though, stays on, with dreams of one day working up the ladder to a more-lucrative butchering position.
Soon, Thomas joins — then becomes a key force — in unionization efforts at the company, which the film covers, along with citywide labor-related woes, over the course of two years. Frustration predictably dominates. Higher-ups are not only expectedly inflexible but also quick to spread easily-believed-in union propaganda, plying marginalized workers with a little extra money to rabble rouse and evade joining in general too. (Many Black workers are also reasonably distrustful of white-led unions — which, not long ago, they hadn’t been allowed to participate in — in general.)
Plus, labor becomes even more precarious when the war ends and soldiers return. With the number of unemployed workers coming to eclipse the number of available jobs, anti-union sentiments maddeningly, though understandably, tend to prevail among people considering themselves too lucky to work at all to jeopardize things. Frank, however, finds that his pro-unionizing spark can’t so easily be extinguished. Leake’s fantastic performance captures the practically vibrating dedication of an intensely exasperated man who knows his exasperation can only be meaningfully placated by a unionization that it seems, more and more, will never happen.
The made-for-PBS movie can at times feel creaky, a little stagebound, with its no-frills blocking and bare sets and the use of voiceover (from Frank) to fill in the gaps that go unaddressed in preceding scenes. (It’s worth noting that these are also partially repercussions of budgetary constraints.) But these simple stylistic shortcuts actually come to feel more like assets than mere limitations. With Frank used as a clear-eyed guide into the action (which can unfortunately leave his family members, headed by a matriarch played by an underused Alfre Woodard, to feel a bit like furniture), the bareness of The Killing Floor’s staging always ensures its complex subject matter be at the fore. No aesthetic interruptions can distract from its anger, or its impressive historical recreations, as meticulously researched by Elsa Russbach. (The latter, who did a deep dive into Chicago’s labor history and was given a story credit, hired screenwriter Leslie Lee to imbue her research into what eventually became the movie’s manuscript.) The Killing Floor is as much an illuminating history lesson as it is a great, impassioned movie about the indignities of labor and the importance of fighting for a seat at the table, even as its distance seems only to get farther away the more you run toward it. A-