The Killing Floor
AN ELSA RASSBACH PRODUCTION
Praised by The Village Voice as the most "clear-eyed account of union organizing on film," The Killing Floor tells the little-known true story of the struggle to build an interracial labor union in the Chicago Stockyards. The screenplay by Obie Award-winner Leslie Lee, based on an original story by producer Elsa Rassbach, traces the racial and class conflicts seething in the city’s giant slaughterhouses, and the brutal efforts of management to divide the workforce along ethnic lines, which eventually boiled over in the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. The first feature film by director Bill Duke, The Killing Floor premiered on PBS' American Playhouse series in 1984 to rave reviews. In 1985 the film was invited to Cannes and won the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award. It has been showcased at Lincoln Center and festivals around the world.
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.
“The Killing Floor should be part of every high school American history curriculum as it exposes the virulence of American anti-black racism while also showing the struggles of poor white immigrants from Eastern Europe who faced harsh conditions as well. Highly Recommended" – C. Atamian, The Sound View.
Introduction by director Bill Duke
Q&A with Damien Leake and Elsa Rassbach
The Making of The Killing Floor: Pandemic Era Conversations
Interview with producer-writer, Elsa Rassbach
Booklet with new essays by Professor James R. Barrett, University of Illinois and Professor Joe William Trotter, Jr., Carnegie Mellon University
- "Rich and revealing, a cry of historical dimensions...."
- "A rare American labor union drama centered on Black experience, THE KILLING FLOOR is a minor miracle of narrative history, succeeding as drama, as pedagogy, and as a model of independent, inclusive, collaborative, local, unionized filmmaking. THE KILLING FLOOR draws on familiar tropes and narrative conventions, but lends them a charge by introducing an alienated Black gaze to typically white spaces, pointedly validating the cultural knowledge that Black southerners bring as spectators to both the union hall and the historical drama. Celebrated dramatist Leslie Lee’s screenplay further makes virtues of archetypes and blunt expository dialogue; such immediacy is critical to the film’s educational economy, which captures the riot’s myriad underlying causes—the Great Migration, the First World War, the growth of organized labor, the European diasporas, and the centuries of exploitation and disenfranchisement of African Americans—in broad yet affecting strokes...THE KILLING FLOOR wasn’t so much a product of its time as a renegade in it—and a treasure in ours."
- "As compelling dramatically as its historical analysis is fascinating … Surprising that a film from the U.S. can be so frank and explicit in its exposure of the class struggle."
- "A classic study in class hate, greed and stubborn idealism. You won´t forget it."
- "Brilliantly captures the drama of the moment as well as the historical forces that produced it."
- "...a particularly brilliant example of a cinema which knows how to use all the resources of fiction, without ever allowing its historical documentary side to be marred."
- "...fascinatingly recreated period reality, in performances that combine political faith with artistic force...."
- "A very powerful, very surprising film.... Well documented and researched, brilliantly acted by Damien Leake in the principal role, THE KILLING FLOOR displays another kind of militancy, above all narrative and carefully concerned with objectivity and accuracy.”"
- "THE KILLING FLOOR is part of our nation's history – a fascinating and bloody episode in the history of the U.S. labor movement... a powerful, personal drama...."
- "Maybe what makes THE KILLING FLOOR so moving and absorbing is the way it succeeds in giving human scale and human impact to a moment in America's industrial history. What makes THE KILLING FLOOR memorable is its evocative re-creation of Chicago and the social milieu that existed there at the time of World War I. From the polemic tensions of the union meetings to Custer's visits to 'Miss Dean's Social Shop' – to dictate, at 50 cents apiece, his letters home – the film breathes the color and life of the period."
- "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."
- "THE KILLING FLOOR presents, in fascinating dialectical wrangles, the large-scale political events of the time: an original and fruitful template for the cinematic analysis of social systems and confrontation with history."
- "THE KILLING FLOOR is a truly compelling, blistering, and vital historical document. Powerful, hard-hitting, but still exceptionally and tenderly crafted...."
- "THE KILLING FLOOR is a striking illustration of the need to synthesize class and race. Based on the experience of trying to build a trade union in Chicago’s stockyards during WWI, it is an object lesson on the need to abandon 'white privilege'. THE KILLING FLOOR ... belongs alongside 'Salt of the Earth' and 'Matewan' as truly engaged, working-class cinema. "
- "Leake is terrific, as is Ernest Rayford as Frank’s best friend who goes off to war in the film’s first act....THE KILLING FLOOR is thrillingly watchable, profoundly stirring and perennially relevant. And it’s an exemplary exercise in how to dramatize history and ideas. "
- "Bill Duke’s underseen and recently restored directorial debut, THE KILLING FLOOR ... is technically a made-for-TV movie; it debuted via PBS’s American Playhouse series. But it has all the heft and energy of a theatrical movie epic, which suits its subject: the fight, among Black and white stockyard workers in early-20th-century Chicago, to form an interracial workers union. "
- "For families looking for more historical context on the systemic racism that many Americans are starting to attempt to better comprehend, THE KILLING FLOOR is essential viewing. The acting is magnificent across the board, and the story doesn't shy away from thorny complexities and ugly truths. It should inspire discussion about what has and hasn't changed since the events depicted in the movie, how events like these continue to haunt the American backstory, the development of the labor movement, and where we go from here as we strive to make a more just society. "
- "Chicago film history remains the richer for its existence and its recent digital restoration."
- "The extensive background research guiding Lee’s script is realized not just in the film’s depiction of the unionization process, but also in the language employed by the characters, as well as in the archival footage used as interstitials between scenes. And the function of those qualities adds up to far more than just period detail and regional texture: The film’s relationship to established facts and records are what drives its narrative momentum – and what eventually grants it true purpose. THE KILLING FLOOR reveals itself to be an intrinsically American historical epic. "
- "THE KILLING FLOOR is a marvelously acted and incisively nuanced exploration of how racial and ethnic divisions have been historically used to break up labor organizing. It’s an instant essential discovery, the kind of film I hope someday plays in classrooms to teach kids about parts of our country’s past that some teachers neglect to mention. Needless to say, it’s even more necessary viewing in an era when simmering tensions in our history are boiling over."
- "Few American movies have this kind of reach. Executive producer Elsa Rassbach, who worked on the story with black playwright Leslie Lee, was educated in West Germany, and Brecht Lives in the jaunty narration that accompanies speeded-up newsreel footage and in the filmmakers' detachment – the way their characters act logically (if shortsightedly) in response to dire economic conditions."
- "A tribute to the superhuman efforts of dedicated filmmakers like Rassbach...."
- "This film succeeds in telling the untold truth at a time when we are exposed only to revisions of the same old story. As we careen blindly through these numbed out days of historical and cultural amnesia, any restoration to memory of time actually lived brings with it a kind of revelatory shock, an insistent shaking up of the deaf-, dumb-, and blindness that constitute a simulated present."
- "It's an important history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one."
Awards & Recognition
Special Jury Award
Sundance Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival
Special Jury Award
USA Film Festival
London Int'l. Film Festival
Mill Valley Film Festival
Locarno Film Festival
Blacklight Film Festival
Los Angeles Film Festival