A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Killing Floor is a 1984 drama in which an African American man moves to Chicago during World War I, finds work in the stockyards, and takes part in the labor movement. As a movie set in the years during and after World War I, against a backdrop of labor tensions and the "Chicago Race Riot of 1919," racism is a central theme to the movie, and as such, the "N" word is often used, including racist graffiti on a viaduct as a threat to African Americans who must walk through a "white" neighborhood in order to get to their jobs. In a time when Americans are reassessing their history and the role systemic racism has played and plays in American life, this movie is incredibly timely and relevant. It should inspire discussion among families about prejudice by race and ethnicity, the rise of labor unions and the labor movement, and how the owners of large industries (in this case, meatpackers) would flame racial and ethnic tensions in order to ensure that there would always be a pool of workers willing to work for low pay and no job security. The movie explores these issues with tremendous depth and nuance, effectively showing the connections between economic class and race, how union leaders attempted to transcend racism and prejudice for a greater good, and the challenges faced by the lead character in trying to convince African Americans to join a union when many African Americans viewed unions as just another institution that took their money and only looked out for white Americans. In terms of content, there are some violent moments, including scenes of white men firing rifles from a car at African Americans who are sitting on the stoops of their apartments, dead bodies on the streets, agitators throwing bricks at union leaders. Some drinking in a bar, in the employee locker room after work, and in a train car. Besides racial epithets and outdated words to describe African American like "coloreds," ethnic slurs are also used.
- Parents say
- Kids say
There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.
There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.
What's the story?
In THE KILLING FLOOR, two lifelong friends, Frank Custer and Thomas Joshua, leave their families behind in Mississippi to find work and a better life in Chicago in 1917. Arriving in "the promised land," the two eventually find work in the Chicago stockyards, where they find that the racism they hoped they left behind in Mississippi is just as prevalent, compounded by labor disputes and unsteady work in dangerous conditions. While Joshua opts instead to join the Army and fight in World War I, Custer sticks it out, hoping to save enough to bring his wife (Alfre Woodard) and family up to Chicago. When a coworker asks him to get involved with the meatcutter's union, Custer is skeptical at first, believing that unions are just another way for white people to keep African Americans down. But after listening to inspiring speeches during a union meeting, Frank is convinced that organized labor is the way to transcend segregation and improve working conditions for all workers. Despite facing intense skepticism from fellow African American coworkers, including "Heavy" (Moses Gunn), who fervently believes that the union won't look out for Black workers when they need their help the most, Custer begins to convince more and more African Americans to join. However, tensions only escalate after World War I ends, and the white men who fought in the war expect to get their jobs back, and the bosses of the meatpacking industry find new ways to continue a "divide and conquer" strategy based on racism and ethnic discrimination among its workers in order to keep a labor pool always willing to work for less. This culminates into what would become known as "The Chicago Race Riot of 1919," and as Joshua advocates fighting on the streets in retaliation for whites burning down their neighborhood and killing of African American men, women, and children, Custer wants to believe that a union that preached universal brotherhood will still look out for his interests, especially now, as he's unable to work in the stockyards because he can no longer safely walk through white neighborhoods to get there.
Is it any good?
While the events depicted in this film happened over 100 years ago, it's easy to see how they've helped to shape contemporary realities. These events and issues, the intersecting of labor, class, race, ethnicity, and immigration, are brought into a remarkable clarity with The Killing Floor, and decades since its release, it's a movie that remains all too relevant. In a time when men worked in the Chicago Stockyards for low pay and abhorrent conditions, kept separated from each other as the meatpacking industrial barons practiced "divide and conquer" strategies rooted in exploiting racial and ethnic prejudice, the burgeoning labor movement fought for eight-hour work days and time-and-a-half for overtime work. They advocated this while also preaching for a universal brotherhood of workers that transcended these easily-exploited racial and ethnic divides, particularly in Chicago. While the rhetoric is remarkably progressive and the cause a noble one, the reality marred by what became known as "The Chicago Race Riot of 1919," started when an African American child, while swimming in Lake Michigan, accidentally ended up crossing into a "whites only" beach, and was pelted with rocks until he drowned.
For families looking for more historical context on the systemic racism that many Americans are starting to attempt to better comprehend, The Killing Floor is essential viewing. The acting is magnificent across the board, and the story doesn't shy away from thorny complexities and ugly truths. It should inspire discussion about what has and hasn't changed since the events depicted in the movie, how events like these continue to haunt the American backstory, the development of the labor movement, and where we go from here as we strive to make a more just society.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the events depicted in The Killing Floor. What did you learn? What does the movie seem to suggest about the link between racism and economic disparity?
How does the movie show a pattern of "divide and conquer" among the meatpackers, in order to ensure that there will always be workers willing to work for less pay and no job security?
What do the arguments between Frank and Heavy suggest about African American attitudes towards labor unions during the years this movie is set?
Our editors recommend
For kids who love African American stories
Themes & Topics
Browse titles with similar subject matter.
Top advice and articles
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.
Streaming options powered by JustWatch