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Tag Archives: The Killing Floor

Interview with THE KILLING FLOOR Producer Elsa Rassbach

The following interview I conducted with producer/writer Elsa Rassbach appeared at Time Out Chicago today:

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One of the most important cinematic events taking place in Chicago this year is the Logan Center’s preview screening of the 4K restoration of The Killing Floor. The locally made film, which originally aired on PBS in 1984 before screening at prestigious festivals like Sundance and Cannes, tells the true story of a poor black Southerner, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), who migrates from the rural south to Chicago in the early 20th century to work in a slaughterhouse. Upon arrival, he becomes involved in labor struggles involving a controversial and newly formed union, and eventually witnesses the notorious Race Riot of 1919. It’s an important history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one. The screening will take place on July 27 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the riot and will be followed by a panel discussion with the film’s producer and co-writer Elsa Rassbach as well as community and labor activists. We spoke with Rassbach in advance of the screening.

Tell me about your background as an artist and activist and the production company you founded that produced The Killing Floor. How did you end up making an independent film about this important chapter in Chicago history?

Though my family was neither left-wing nor union, I’ve been drawn to the struggle for social justice ever since high school, when we engaged in sit-ins at Woolworth’s in my hometown, Denver, in protest against the firm’s segregationist policies in the South. Following college in the U.S., I studied at the film academy in West Berlin, where people scoffed at the saying that “messages are for Western Union” and honored the work of politically committed artists like Berthold Brecht. My first short films were on feminist themes, but I soon developed a passionate interest in untold stories of history. I returned to the U.S. in 1972 and began reading more and more about the fascinating history of working people, who have played such an important role in our history, for which they have never been recognized. I found it astounding that I had never learned about these stories in school or college. Meanwhile I had been hired at the public television station in Boston, WGBH, to work on the first seasons of the NOVA series, and I received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a public television series on the history of the American labor movement. In William Tuttle’s book about the Chicago Race Riot I happened upon a footnote in which I discovered the two main characters in The Killing Floor: Frank Custer and Heavy Williams. These two black men, who both worked on the killing floor of a Chicago slaughterhouse, were testifying before a white federal judge, and the two were entirely at odds with each other in how they viewed the causes of the mounting racism from which they were both suffering. I was drawn to the complexity—the race riot was of course not just about black people vs. white people. So I ordered from the National Archives the entire transcript of the hearing in which the two testified. All of the characters who work on “the killing floor” in our film, both black and white, leapt out of the thousands of pages of testimony by a group of workers at the Wilson Meatpacking Company in June of 1919. I knew immediately that a film about them had to be made. I felt that the film needed not only to be dramatically compelling but also to be as accurate as possible—people should know this really happened. In the film the names of the main characters have remained the same as in the original testimony. And I founded a nonprofit production company to tell this story.

Leslie Lee was already an Obie Award-winning playwright when you engaged him to write the screenplay but what made you feel that Bill Duke, a terrific director who at that point had only directed television episodes, was the right person to helm this project?

Before I met Bill, I had worked closely with playwright Ron Milner and then with Leslie Lee on the script. Of the several directors I considered, Bill had the clearest and deepest understanding of what we wanted to achieve with the screenplay. I felt he had a visceral relationship with the characters. Beyond his experience directing action-packed television episodes, such as Hill Street Blues, Bill is also an alumnus of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, which is known for producing plays about complex, sometimes disturbing, and often ignored aspects of the black experience and the American experience. Leslie Lee later became the company’s executive director. And many of the fine actors in the film had also been involved in the Negro Ensemble Company, including Moses Gunn, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Henderson, and Mary Alice. I felt that Bill was right for this project, and he even surpassed my expectations. He was able to handle the complex logistics of the film, which among other things involved shooting in a real killing floor where cattle were still being slaughtered in Chicago. He was also able to hold to the emotional core of this complex material throughout, directing fine, subtle and compelling performances that give the twists and turns of the story authenticity and dramatic power.

When I interviewed Duke a few years ago, he mentioned that Harold Washington was elected at the same time shooting on the film began, which felt auspicious for the production. Can you talk a little about what the atmosphere was like in Chicago, politically and otherwise, at that time?

I was so absorbed in producing the film that I was not out and about much in Chicago. But I was quite astounded and grateful at how much support we received to make this film. It was support that we desperately needed, because we really did not have enough money to do what we were trying to do. People who had worked on Harold Washington’s election campaign organized hundreds of volunteers who were willing to be extras in the film, and a steelworkers local on the South Side led by Ed Sadlowski did the same. Per an agreement with the Chicago entertainment unions, virtually everyone who had a paid job on the film deferred half of normal guild or union wages to make the production feasible on our scant budget. Not only the entire cast, but also the lighting crew, the makeup and hair stylists, and the Teamster drivers, among others, deferred half their wages, and we on the production staff did the same. In 1983, the workers at the Lincoln Meat Corporation in Chicago, where we shot the killing floor scenes, were mainly southern blacks or Poles just like the killing floor workers in 1919. They volunteered for many hours to teach our actors the ropes of working in a slaughterhouse. It was two and a half years since Ronald Reagan had taken office as President. People were already feeling the impact of the plans to decimate the American labor movement, and to some supporting the film was one way of pushing back.

The screening at the Logan Center will take place on the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Race Riot. Do you see any parallels between the era depicted in your film and the present day? Are there lessons in the film that you feel are particularly relevant to contemporary viewers?

I don’t know about lessons, but The Killing Floor explores an era that does have some important parallels to our own time. U.S. unions had been pretty much crushed in the 1890s. The film is set twenty-five years later, during and after World War I, when people were still searching for a way to reorganize and develop some bargaining power—for the sake of human dignity and democracy as well as to improve material conditions. When people do not have their own strong organizations bringing them together in a spirit of solidarity, competition for “the crumbs” begins. In the battle for scant resources, people can easily be set against each other, and racism mounts. Following the severe attacks on the labor movement that began in the McCarthy Era and have intensified in the 1980s until this day, we are now experiencing a truly frightening rise in racism reminiscent of 1919 . This is happening not only in the U.S., but also in Europe, where migrants and refugees from the Global South are competing for resources in northern cities. It is important to realize that while the protagonists in The Killing Floor were not able to prevail in their struggle for solidarity in 1919, their work sowed the seeds for important victories only 15 years later, in the 1930s, when benefits and reforms were won that we still enjoy today. Now we are in a time when we have a long way to go to rebuild the strength of the people’s organizations. Both courage and patience are called for.

The Killing Floor screens at the Logan Center for the Arts on July 27 at 7pm. Admission is free.

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An African-American Cinema Primer

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today’s post is an African-American cinema primer. This list is not meant to be exhaustive (for one thing, I’m limiting myself to one film per director) but here are 10 essential movies made by African-American filmmakers that I think have valuable things to say about black life in America. I hope this will serve as a useful starting point for anyone interested in exploring African-American cinema.

Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920)

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The only films made by African Americans prior to Gordon Parks helming The Learning Tree for Warner Brothers in 1969 — much to the shame of the major Hollywood studios — were independently financed. The most important black filmmaker in the first half of the 20th century was Oscar Micheaux, who directed over 40 films in a career spanning 30 years in both the silent and sound eras. The incendiary drama Within Our Gates was Micheaux’s second film and is the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American. Sylvia Landry Evelyn Preer) is a young Chicago woman who endeavors to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Much like The Birth of a Nation, Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south, and also cuts back and forth between action occurring in separate time frames in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry white mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The complex and clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of Griffith’s film by showing the historical reality of who really did the lynching. Within Our Gates was thought to be a lost movie until a single print was discovered in Spain (under the title La Negra) in the late 1970s. Restored by The Library of Congress in 1993, it is now available on DVD via Grapevine Video.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles, 1971)

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“. . . Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality . . .” So reads a fitting quote at the beginning of Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking third film, one that he financed independently (which included a $50,000 assist from Bill Cosby) when Columbia Pictures balked at the proposed storyline. Van Peebles himself stars as “Sweetback,” an L.A.-based gigolo who beats up some racist cops for harassing a Black Panther and then flees to Mexico with help from members of the black community (who are collectively credited as “starring” in the movie in the opening credits). This film bears roughly the same relation to 1970s blaxploitation cinema that John Carpenter’s Halloween bears to 1980s slasher flicks: it almost singlehandedly kickstarted a dubious subgenre after becoming a surprise commercial phenomenon (although none of the movies that followed in its wake arguably matched it for subversive political content). And while its still debatable as to whether the copious, unsimulated sex scenes are necessary (Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea while shooting one scene and was able to get “worker’s comp” from the DGA for being “hurt on the job” — money that he promptly sunk back into the budget), it’s important to remember that cinematic depictions of black American males prior to this had always been meek and asexual. A fascinating relic of its era that still feels revolutionary today.

Cooley High (Schultz, 1975)

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This terrific high school movie — made in Chicago in 1975 but taking place in 1964 — is often referred to as the “black American Graffiti.” It’s so good that I wish American Graffiti were referred to as the “white Cooley High.” Like George Lucas’ beloved period piece, this low budget indie looks back nostalgically and humorously on a more innocent time by focusing on a group of teenagers at the end of a school year — and features an equally amazing soundtrack (nearly all Motown) to boot. Best friends Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) cut class, crash a party, chase women, shoot craps, inadvertently get mixed up with the law after unknowingly going for a joyride in a stolen Cadillac, etc. All the while, their friendship is tested by their divergent career paths: the literary Preach, a character modeled on screenwriter Eric Monte (who grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project), dreams of becoming a successful writer, an ambition that Cochise doesn’t understand. This was directed by Michael Schultz, a former theater director who does wonders with a cast of mostly unknowns. It also features arguably the greatest use of Chicago locations of any picture shot in my fair city.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1979)

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The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the greatest American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of its insider’s view of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another, and playing in railroad yards never fail to bring tears to my eyes because of how much they remind me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and often engaged in “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

The Killing Floor (Duke, 1984)

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Bill Duke is best known for his work as a character actor (with scene-stealing cameos and supporting roles in everything from Predator to Menace II Society) but he’s also carved out a distinguished if regrettably little-known parallel career as a film director. This invisibility is in part because, like Charles Burnett, his filmography spans the disparate worlds of Hollywood, independent and made-for-television movies; even many of the people who admire this auteur’s work are unaware that what they are fans of are actually “Bill Duke films.” My favorite of his movies are the 1992 neo-noir Deep Cover and the 1984 T.V. film The Killing Floor, which tells the true story of the migration of one black man, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), from the rural south to Chicago in the early 20th century. Upon arrival in the Second City he becomes involved in labor struggles involving a controversial and newly formed union, and eventually witnesses the notorious race riots of 1919. This is a terrific history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one. Duke identified it as one of his own favorite movies when I interviewed him in 2013.

Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)

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Spike Lee’s long and prolific career has been maddeningly uneven but he is also, in the words of his idol Billy Wilder, a “good, lively filmmaker.” Lee’s best and liveliest film is probably his third feature, 1989’s Do the Right Thing, which shows racial tensions coming to a boil on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Lee himself stars as Mookie, a black deliveryman working for a white-owned pizzeria in a predominantly black community. A series of minor conflicts between members of the large ensemble cast (including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito and John Turturro) escalates into a full-blown race riot in the film’s unforgettable climax. While the movie is extremely political, it is also, fortunately, no didactic civics lesson: Lee is able to inspire debate about hot-button issues without providing any easy or reassuring answers. This admirable complexity is perhaps best exemplified by two seemingly incompatible closing-credits quotes — by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X — about the ineffectiveness and occasional necessity of violence, respectively. It is also much to Lee’s credit that, as provocative and disturbing as the film at times may be, it is also full of great humor and warmth, qualities perfectly brought out by the ebullient cast and the exuberant color cinematography of Ernest Dickerson.

Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991)

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Julie Dash is part of the “L.A. Rebellion” school of black filmmakers along with her fellow UCLA graduates Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry and Larry Clark. But unlike her male counterparts, all of whom directed their first features in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dash’s independent breakthrough feature wasn’t completed and released until 1991 (it was, in fact, the first feature-length movie directed by an African-American woman). It was also worth the wait: Daughters of the Dust is a uniquely poetic and moving film about members of the Gullah culture, former slaves and their descendants who live on the Sea Islands off of the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. More specifically, Dash’s movie centers on one Gullah family, the Peazants, as they plan on leaving the islands behind and immigrating to the mainland for good at the turn of the 20th century. The film is primarily a non-narrative experience, one that Dash claims is based more on African folklore traditions rather than Western storytelling: characters in period costume frolic on the beach, their movements abstracted by slow-motion cinematography, images frequently accompanied by poetic voice-over narration about the importance of tradition and memory. Regrettably, this is also Dash’s last theatrical feature to date.

One False Move (Franklin, 1992)

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Three drug dealers/killers — two men and one woman — pull off a big score in L.A. and then head across the country to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Two L.A. cops, aware of the trio’s plan, beat them to their destination and must work there with the local-yokel sheriff in order to apprehend the criminals. The always welcome, perennially underrated character actor Bill Paxton has arguably his best role as Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, a man who seems overly eager to have the chance to crack an important case alongside of the big city cops. What starts off as a compelling neo-noir, however, gradually deepens into something much richer and more complex as layers are peeled back from each of the characters, some of whom prove to be connected in unexpected ways. The screenplay was co-written by Tom Epperson and a pre-Sling Blade Billy Bob Thornton (who also co-stars as one of the crooks). The taut direction is by Carl Franklin who, as a result of this, landed the plum assignment of helming the Denzel Washington-starring Devil in a Blue Dress. But I would argue that the independently made One False Move, which makes no false moves, remains the director’s finest hour.

Menace II Society (Hughes/Hughes, 1993)

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Menace II Society is by far the best of the early 90s “hood movies,” which essentially transposed classic Hollywood gangster film tropes to contemporary urban black neighborhoods. The auspicious directing debut of twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes (and still their best movie to date) follows Caine (Tyrin Turner), a recent high school grad and hustler, and his charismatic but crazy sidekick O-Dog (Larenz Tate) as they navigate life on the mean streets of Watts over the course of one long and deadly summer. This is much more violent and less obviously moralistic than John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, the film that had kickstarted the genre two years earlier, and consequently generated much controversy upon its first release. Seen today, it’s much easier to view it as the intelligent cautionary tale and social critique that the filmmakers intended.

Eve’s Bayou (Lemmons, 1997)

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Kasi Lemmons wrote and directed this singular fever dream of a movie about a woman looking back on her childhood growing up on the Louisiana bayou in the late 1960s. It begins with the title character narrating as an offscreen adult how she “killed” her father the summer that she turned 10-years-old. Much like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, this is a great “memory film” that introduces viewers to the cast of a large, colorful family through the subjective reminiscences of its youngest member. Samuel L. Jackson, who also produced, gives one of his finest performances as Louis, a handsome doctor and the patriarch of the Batiste family. His extra-marital dalliances, which cause his family grief even as they put up with his roguish behavior, ultimately lead to tragedy. Among several interwoven story threads is one involving Louis’ sister and her practice of witchcraft, and another involving a disturbingly ambiguous treatment of incest. I’ve heard it said that female filmmakers are less concerned with narrative logic than their male counterparts, and more concerned with the poetry of emotions. Whether or not that’s true, Eve’s Bayou is an unusually poetic narrative in the best possible sense.


Filmmaker Interview: Bill Duke

Dark Girls is a new documentary that uses interviews (notably the powerful testimony of many different African-American women) to confront the controversial issue of “colorism” — the notion that darker-skinned blacks face more prejudice. It premieres this Sunday at 10pm ET on the OWN network. Dark Girls was produced and co-directed by the great character actor and filmmaker Bill Duke. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Duke about the new film as well as his Chicago-shot masterpiece The Killing Floor and his criminally underrated 1992 crime movie Deep Cover, a staple in my Film Studies classes.

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MGS: How did Dark Girls originate?

BD: It basically originated from us wanting to give a voice to the voiceless: us (growing up) as dark-skinned young men and seeing what our families went through — the young ladies in our families. We did a year and a half or two of research. And then after the research we began to put some film together and interviews. And then we contacted experts from psychiatrists, spiritual leaders and a lot of different people to really get a point of view on this subject matter — a lot of historians. And so we finally just put it together over a couple years.

MGS: When I was preparing for this interview I realized that the stigma that dark-skinned black women face is quite old . . .

BD: It’s also global. And I found something that’s interesting: skin bleach is one of the (best)-selling cosmetics in the world. It’s a multi-billion dollar business. In India for example, Indian men use skin bleach because they want to be lighter because any darker-skinned Indian man is considered a field worker. A lighter-skinned Indian man is considered an office worker. It’s a global thing.

MGS: Right. Does that originate with slavery, do you think?

BD: I think colonialism around the world, yes, that’s one of the things, and also caste systems, etc. But I think it’s something that unfortunately still exists and is impacting our children in a very negative way.

MGS: It seems like it’s still taboo to talk about it.

BD: Well, people don’t really want to talk about it because it’s painful. And one of the biggest things to happen after we screen the film is the Q&A after — because that’s when people (in the audience) really say what they really have gone through. And their question is, “What’s next? The film is okay but what are we going to do about it?” You know?

MGS: Right. Is that important to you, to use filmmaking to educate?

BD: Sure, because, you know, I screened the film three weeks ago at a high-school in L.A. And then, after the screening, these dark-skinned little girls are crying. We asked them why. They said, “Well, nobody invited us to our senior prom because they thought we were ugly.” This happened three weeks ago.

MGS: Hopefully, your film will go a long way towards changing people’s perception of that.

BD: I hope so. We’ve got to do something about it. I appreciate your support of it because it’s more than a film. People get, you know, the fact that it has some importance.

MGS: I’m actually going to make it an extra credit assignment for my students.

BD: Great, great, great.

darkgirls Dark Girls poster

MGS: You’ve always believed that movies should educate, right? Because your first real film as a director was The Killing Floor (about Chicago’s labor wars) from 1984.

BD: Yes. That is one of my favorite films of all time that I made, The Killing Floor.

MGS: Mine too. I think that is one of the all-time great Chicago movies.

BD: Thank you so much. I really love that movie. The great Moses Gunn was in that. I love Moses Gunn.

MGS: As “Heavy,” right?

BD: (laughs) Yes!

MGS: Why is that not available on DVD?

BD: I’m not sure, you know. It was a PBS-sponsored film. I’m not quite sure why they never made a DVD of it. I would love to know the answer to that question.

MGS: So PBS owns the rights to it?

BD: Yes.

MGS: So people should petition them then if they want a DVD release. The way you recreated Chicago from 1917 to 1919 was absolutely incredible.

BD: Thank you very much. We really enjoyed it. And we enjoyed being in Chicago in that time too ’cause Harold Washington (Chicago’s first black mayor) was elected the first week that we were there. Yes — political history.

MGS: I’m sure that felt auspicious for your film.

BD: Incredible, man. Incredible.

killingfloor Damien Leake in The Killing Floor

MGS: I also wanted to ask you about Deep Cover. That’s a film I show in my Film History classes . . .

BD: Oh, really? Thank you for that.

MGS: Yeah, I show it to illustrate neo-noir. Are you a fan of the old films noir of the 40s and 50s?

BD: Yes, I am. Always have been. Always have.

MGS: And were you consciously trying to update the conventions for the 90s?

BD: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly right, yes. I studied it and wanted to see how I could leverage it in some way and it was really a great experience for me. It really was.

MGS: I think the chemistry between Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum was phenomenal in that film.

BD: I agree a thousand percent. I thought they did a great job, man. They really did. Great acting.

MGS: It seems like a lot of their dialogue was improvised. Was that the case?

BD: Um, it was based on the text but, you know, I let them kind of freestyle too ’cause they were feeling each other. So I let them do what they wanted to do. We had a great writer too. Henry Bean was a great writer.

MGS: It seems like you’re working more in television these days and it seems like a lot of ambitious filmmakers think that television is the best venue for serious films. Would you agree with that?

BD: Well, I created a documentary company (Duke Media) that makes what I call “edutainment”: you can entertain people but also you can deal with social issues. And so I have a documentary company. Dark Girls is one (film), we’re bringing Yellow Gals next and What is a Man? after that. So it’s really interesting to use documentary filmmaking to make statements and also explore issues that impact our community.

MGS: What were those next two films you just named?

BD: Yellow Gals, which deals with what light-skinned women go through and then What is a Man?, which deals with manhood from the caves to the present day.

MGS: Well, I look forward to seeing them. Thank you so much, Bill.

BD: I appreciate it, man. Thank you for your support.

DeepCover Laurence Fishburne (in his last performance credited as “Larry”) basking in the red/blue color scheme of the awesome neo-noir Deep Cover.

You can learn more about Dark Girls at the official website for the film: http://officialdarkgirlsmovie.com/


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