Remembering "The Killing Floor": A Look at Chicago's Labor Union History
By: Sarah Miller, Class of 2015
Photo credit: UChicago Film Studies Center
"What was very exciting for me in making this film was capturing the story of an ordinary people who are not famous but have compelling, dramatic stories make decisions that change their lives and the course of history," - Elsa Rassbach, Executive Producer, The Killing Floor.
On Thursday, May 17, the Film Studies Center sponsored a screening of the 1985 historical drama with Rassbach, senior lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts Judy Hoffman, and Director of the Center of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University Michael Dawson.
Set in the early 20th century, The Killing Floor portrays the story of Frank Custer, a black sharecropper who leaves his family in Mississippi in search for work in Chicago. He ultimately finds work on the "killing floor" in one of the (in)famous slaughterhouses, where he befriends Bill Bremer, a German immigrant who is determined to form a union.
However, Custer faces significant opposition from fellow black workers,
including Heavy Williams, who is skeptical of joining after experiencing
racism from exclusive labor unions in the South. As a worker in the
stockyards, Custer also had to cope with living alone in a strange city
and crossing through the racist and sometime volatile white neighborhood
in order to get work.
The challenges Custer faces in the North were not unique; from 1910 to 1930, in what historians refer to as the "First Great Migration," 1.6 million African Americans left the South in search for work. During this time, it is estimated that Chicago's black population rose by about 148 percent. The surge in population, combined with soldiers returning from World War I, led to rising hostility and job competition that culminated in the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.
Directed by Bill Duke, The Killing Floor showcases many famous Chicago actors and features an original story written by Rassbach. As the producer of WBGH Public Television in Boston, she proposed a labor history series, but The Killing Floor was the only film made in the series. Though she first suggested the series in the 1970's, funding for The Killing Floor was difficult because of the relationship between public television and private enterprises - the film was released in 1985.
For, Rassbach, Hoffman, and Dawson, the film has significant personal meaning. Rassbach first learned about Custer's story while studying film in Germany in the 1960's. At the time the film was shot, Hoffman was a camera assistant, trying to break into the then all-male International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Dawson, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, was active in the both the civil rights and labor movements.
"Even in my final years as a labor union organizer, it was still difficult to create interracial solidarity among workers," Dawson said in the discussion. "The labor activists were constantly working for solidarity, fighting against racism."Combining real historical footage and lively characters, this dramatic representation of events that are long forgotten, The Killing Floor and the story behind its production provide a scintillating perspective of Chicago's history and the meaning of labor and race relations in America.
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