The Killing Floor

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
The Killing Floor Movie Poster Image
Violence, language, racism in excellent historical drama.
  • NR
  • 1984
  • 118 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Movie explores the development of the labor movement in the Chicago stockyards in the aftermath of World War I, and how union organizers tried to counter the divide-and-conquer tactics of the meatpacking companies, who often found ways to turn races and ethnicities against each other. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Frank Custer leaves Mississippi in order to find economic opportunity in "the promised land" of Chicago in the midst of World War I. As he encounters racism and segregation while starting work on "the killing floor" of the Chicago meatpacking stockyards, he also begins to take a more active role in the growing labor movement.

Violence

Scenes depict a car driving through an African American neighborhood while a white man fires a rifle at African Americans sitting outside on the stoops of their apartment buildings. A mob of white men chase two African Americans out of an all-white neighborhood that the African American men must walk through in order to get to work. During the rioting, African American man shown dead on the sidewalk. Talk of how the riot started when an African American boy was stoned to death when he went swimming and ended up on the "white" side of Lake Michigan. Agitators throw bricks at union leaders in order to break up a peaceful protest. Footage of cattle being stabbed and cut up for meat and other byproducts -- one of the lead character's jobs on "the killing floor" is to use a pushbroom to remove the blood. 

Sex

Some flirtation and close dancing in one scene, after the lead character bets that he can pick up an attractive woman at the bar. 

Language

"N" word frequently used by white and Black characters. Graffiti on a viaduct wall reads, "[N-words] Go Home," and "Kill the [N-words]." "Coloreds" is frequently used to describe African Americans. Ethnic slur used to describe Polish Americans. 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinking in a bar -- shots, beer. Men pass around a jug while riding in a train car. Men in a meat packing locker room pass around a bottle of whiskey. 

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. 

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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? 

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love African American stories

Themes & Topics

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