The Killing Floor

Film. Directed by Bill Duke. 1985. Digitally restored in 2020. 118 minutes.
Set during World War I, two African-American men deal with racism in the workplace and the labor union.

Time Periods: 20th Century, 1910
Themes: African American, Labor, Organizing, Racism & Racial Identity

View digitally restored film online.

Two African-American men migrate from the rural south to Chicago during World War I and land jobs in a packing house. They respond very differently to the challenges presented.

The film deals forthrightly and pretty effectively with racism in the workplace and the union and ends with the 1919 riots and their aftermath. The screenplay by Obie-Award-winner Leslie Lee is based on an original story by producer Elsa Rassbach.

Damien Leake, Clarence Felder, Moses Gunn, Ernest Rayford, Alfre Woodard, and Dennis Farina appear in this true story, which won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.


The year is 1917 and the first World War is in full swing, leaving good paying jobs (21 cents an hour) for the men left behind, mostly immigrants and southern blacks. The film portrays the pioneering attempt of Frank Custer and other stockyard workers to bring together other African Americans, Poles, Lithuanian, Irish, and German workers to form an interracial union in the face of growing racial conflict in Chicago, the culmination of which eventually led to the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. The Killing Floor is based on actual characters and event and the tension expressed one of the great themes of American history: the conflict between class and race. It is explored with dignity, style and compassion. These were courageous men now remembered and revered, for it was not until the 1930’s that the vision of a strong interracial union was realized. A strong script and performances making The Killing Floor an honorable, rich and revealing film. — Sundance Film Festival

Less fictionalized than most historical dramas, The Killing Floor is scrupulously researched, with every character based on a real person no “composites” here. — TV Guide


Produced by Public Forum Productions, Ltd. and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Playhouse, foundations, corporations and dozens of unions, The Killing Floor premiered on American Playhouse in 1984. The film was the pilot production for a proposed ten-part PBS series on American labor history, but financing from public television for the series could not be obtained.

In 2019 UCLA Film & Television Archive created a 4K digital restoration of The Killing Floor in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Red Summer and the Chicago Riot of 1919.  The restored film is now available from the distributor Film Movement Classics.

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