October 29, 1985

Charnel House Blues
By D.E.

"The search for a usable past." Thatís the title the Black Filmmakers Foundation has chosen for itís three-part "Dialogues with Black Filmmakers" series, and itís an odd notion to hear in this absent-minded country: that history can be put to practical use. (A scan of the BFF board of directors turns up heavy mid-70s Yale representation; score one for Afro-American Studies.) Over three nights, the BFF presents two half-hour documentaries on Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington; the saga of Solomon Northup, a free Black fiddle player in New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery; and the story Frank Custer, organized labor, and the bloody Chicago Race Riot of 1919. The series has its clunkers, but the question it raises eclipses them: Where are the myths to spark--and sustain--the next generations?

Lo, theyíve found a corker: The Killing Floor, about the clash between blacks and immigrant whites in a World War I Chicago slaughterhouse--an apt, cutthroat setting for a yarn that ends with both sides on the street wielding bricks and knives and shotguns. It opens cheerfully. During the war, when most young men are abroad, a black sharecropper, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), leaves his family for the suddenly plentiful job opportunities of the windy City. At the charnel- house, where he finds work in the eponymous blood-and-bone shop, burly whites like Bill Bremer (Clarence Felder) sharpen their butcher knives under Frankís nose, but he gets help from another Black, a strong, silent type called Heavy Williams (Moses Gunn). read more>>
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