The Killing Floor

Film still from the Killing Floor

The Killing Floor was intended as the pilot for a series of dramatic television films on American labor history — ” Made in U.S.A.” — to be produced by Elsa Rassbach for PBS. For several years in the 70s Rassbach worked at WGBH developing treatments and securing funding from National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources.

Based on research by noted labor historians, she and African-American writer Leslie Lee produced a script for The Killing Floor, but before the film could be made Rassbach had to resolve funding issues posed by the insistence of PBS that private sources must contribute more than public sources and the condition imposed by WGBH that private funds must not include support from labor unions. These restrictions led to an outcry in 1980 from historians and the media which resulted in the allowance of support for The Killing Floor from thirty labor unions and the AFL-CIO.

Even with labor and public support, the production was underfunded.Screenwriter Leslie Lee, director Bill Duke, and the largely black cast agreed to work at halfscale in order to get this film made about race and labor issues in Chicago’s stockyards. The film was aired to four million viewers on American Playhouse and received general critical acclaim. It has received many awards, including the Sundance Film Festival, and was invited to the Cannes Film Festival.

Not a documentary but a dramatization of historical events — the migration of southern black workers to Chicago, their employment in the stockyards, tensions between them and white workers, efforts to organize them into racially-integrated unions, the impact on these workers of military service in World War I, the race riot in Chicago during the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919 —The Killing Floor tells an important and compelling story about a neglected chapter of American labor history.

Though the The Killing Floor is based on actual events and is derived from documents such as transcripts of hearings on the riot, personal and newspaper accounts and letters, screenwriter Leslie Lee acknowledged that he took some liberties, especially in developing the characters. Historian Steven Brier objects to this mingling of fact and fiction, referring to the film as an “example of leftists’ uncritical judgment of a labor history film… We should not suspend our critical judgment about a history film’s ‘truth status’ simply because the filmmaker’s heart is in the right place or he has chosen to depict a working-class subject or theme.”

It would have been interesting to see whether Brier’s critique extended to Rassbach’s other labor stories, but she never got to tell them. Her program on New England female textile workers in the 1840s, Lost Eden, was rejected by WGBH, whose president happened to be James Lowell — heir to the textile mill depicted in the film. Her program on the great 1892 steel strike, Homestead, with a script developed with Phil Rosenberg, never made it to broadcast. (In 1997 PBS did air a program not on the strike, though it is mentioned, but on Andrew Carnegie — The Richest Man in the World).

So I am not surprised to note that Ken Burns blurs or ignores labor issues in his programs and I do not look for him to produce for PBS a series on US labor history such as Rassbach’s projected Made in USA.

An unanticipated consequence of screening The Killing Floor at the Dryden Theatre, soon after its release, has been the 30-year collaboration between George Eastman House and the Rochester Labor Council, presenting 316 labor films to 36,000 viewers since 1989. *

Meanwhile Elsa Rassbach continues to do important documentary work on drone warfare, war resistance, and the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. She lives and works in Berlin, where she runs a program for GIs at US bases in Germany and is active in Code Pink and No to Nato.

* numbers updated 7/25/19

This entry was posted in English Language on by .

About Jon Garlock

Jon Garlock chairs the Education Committee of the Rochester (NY) Labor Council. He coordinates an annual Labor Film Series, now in its 26th year, presented at the International Museum of Film and Photography at George Eastman House. He has published on 19th century US and local labor history, co-directing a video and developing teaching materials on Rochester's unions.