April 10, 1984

On PBS, a tale of racial struggle
By David Bianculli

To its credit, "American Playhouse" has mounted many productions dealing with issues of prejudice; For Us, The Living and The File on Jill Hatch, like The Killing Floor, concentrate on the bigoted cruelty facing blacks at various points in this country’s history. The Killing Floor, though, is the most effective of the three.

The Killing Floor works so well chiefly because it avoids the usual mistakes of the TV docudrama. Ins tead of overloading its cast with “box-office” names, The Killing Floor features an even mixture of young and veteran talent.

Instead of photographing and lighting every scene in standard "Love Boat" fashion, director of photography Bill Birch allows the settings to dictate the mood. Consequently, the bars are dark, the homes dreary, the "killing floor" a shadowy cave.

Most important, writers Leslie Lee and Elsa Rassbach allow their heroes to have flaws, and give their villains the courage of their convictions. Custer, the principled protagonist, nearly has an affair before his wife joins him in Chicago; Heavy Williams, the aptly named antagonist of The Killing Floor, steadfastly refuses to support the union--but does so because of a firm and rational set of beliefs.

There's a lot to like about The Killing Floor, especially its performances. Leake, who starred in the "American Playhouse" production of Medal of Honor Rag, is excellent as Custer, and Moses Gunn, as Williams, squeezes a few extra drops of life out of every scene in which he appears. read more>>
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