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May 10, 1985

CAHIERS DU CINEMA
(English translation from the original French)

By Michel Chion

…THE KILLING FLOOR, by Bill Duke, is not a police thriller as its title might suggest, but a film or television document about the problems of the blacks, who during the First World War leave the South to work in the stockyards of Chicagoand there encounter the question of unionism. Their dilemma: whether to stay among blacks, isolated from the whites and without control of their destiny, or whether to join the union formed by the whites, with all the dangers of manipulation, of inequality, and of compromise which that entails. If the film argues for the union, it is not without having first exposed at length the arguments for and against. It is so well told, dramatized, and fictionalized through the historical case of a young, well-intentioned black unionist, Frank Custer, that one follows all these problems with great interest, so that after screening, one could almost summarize in ten points all that one has learned about the workers in Chicago’s stockyards. Refusing to “romanticize” and to overdo the sentimental scenes, the narrative is mostly made of a series of oral confrontations, where the magnificent black voices speak passionately, with simple and worthy words, in terms everyone can understand, about questions which are both very specific to time and place at the same time quite eternal. While recognizing that the impeccable (“perfect”) production of THE KILLING FLOOR is completely impersonal, one can’t help but admiring in this work the American pedagogical genius in its way of portraying the labor problems of packers and butchers--in addressing, through each spectator, the entire world.
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