Live, Love, Labor: Bill Duke's The Killing Floor and the Performance of Politicized Sociality

Curator's Note

“I know what the hell a friend is.” Towards the end of Bill Duke’s The Killing Floor, Heavy Williams (Moses Gunn), a Black meatpacker who has no interest in the multi-racial union organizing led by Frank Custer (Damien Leake), lets everyone know. The two have a history. It is 1919 and white mobs have established strongholds in the city, murdering Black people, forcing the businesses to close and subsequently creating food shortage. Custer has just come to the YMCA where Williams is handing out provisions. The collision here is between the union organizer Custer and Williams an anti-union agitator. [1] Gunn’s performance as the problematic Williams invites viewers to reckon with the tangled knot of politics and personal relationships.

The Killing Floor is a historical drama based on the actual events and people surrounding the Chicago race rebellions of 1919. Influenced by William Tuttle’s groundbreaking Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919, Duke’s film aired on television in 1984 as a part of PBS’ American Playhouse series. Duke, a prominent stage actor and director, was making the transition to feature length filmmaking and he found himself in good company. That same year, American Playhouse broadcast Gordon Parks’ adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. Parks had all but left the industry after Paramount had, in Park’s words “deliberately kill[ed]” his biopic on the blues legend, Leadbelly.[2]

As with so many underrecognized Black films of the 1970s and 1980s, The Killing Floor had deep connections to the New York theatre world. An early script was written by Ron Milner, one of the most prominent playwrights of the Black Arts Movement. In Milner’s original script, Williams is more of a nationalistic bluesman, a creative intellectual like Leadybelly or any of the figures Amiri Baraka wrote about in his revolutionary account Blues People. Williams and Custer are portrayed as two men with shared aims: the well-being of Black folks in Chicago. In the film, Williams is more of a typical baddie—a figure whose inability to participate in a coalitional project marks him as shortsighted, if not villainous. Nevertheless, Gunn’s performance reflects the complexities of Milner’s earlier depiction. He modulates his voice and limns his words with the history of pain and possibility. It is through Gunn that we understand Williams’ past reckoning with the lies of white organizers and the challenges of collective action across race and class.

Like Milner, Moses Gunn cut his teeth on the New York stage. However, in 1964, he made his film debut in the astonishing Nothing but a Man. Michael Roemer’s film has become something of a cinephile’s classic—an intimate portrait of two Black people striving to make a life and love each other amidst the racism of 1960s Alabama. It’s a beautiful film that finds the lead, Duff (Ivan Dixon) struggling to find a job after being blacklisted for merely suggesting that his Black co-workers at a sawmill come together to stop the deluge of racist comments and policies. The Killing Floor is a more didactic film. This is clear in its origins, funding sources (including strong support from the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations), and use of archival footage related to a historical conjuncture. But like Nothing but a Man, it is interested in how political commitments are enfleshed in the intimate exchanges between close friends and lovers.

Nearly a decade before The Killing Floor premiered, Jessie Maple became the first Black woman in the cameraperson’s union. Reflecting on her experiences, Maple explained that unions had ultimately been “more harmful than helpful [to minorities] in terms of . . . getting behind-the-camera jobs.”[3] Gunn was familiar with this world and all of the inequities of Hollywood. His performance as Williams not only offers a rendering of a historical figure but it also functions as an allegory for Black laborers in the film and television industry.

In the clip above, Custer arrives at the YMCA in a moment of humility. He negotiates his own feelings of resentment and pride. Even in the space of others, he feels alone. Though Williams knows the man, he asks Custer’s name, orchestrating the organizer’s pain and goading him into an explicit reckoning with the union’s actions. The union has not helped either man in this instance—whatever a friend seems to be is up for grabs.

Where Custer is at a loss, Williams is confident. He knows what a friend is. The foundation of that relationship is a recognition of one’s name and that, as Williams later exhorts, you “remember where you came from.” Gunn’s performance turns a character who could be an easy villain into someone who, like Baraka’s bluesman, knows how to verbalize "the peculiar social, cultural, economic, and emotional experience of a black man in America...[which was] secret and obscure…[and] as basic as blood"[4] Those experiences, just like Moses Gunn’s performance, resonate now. For so many Black independent filmmakers in New York, from Jessie Maple and Bill Duke to Kathleen Collins and Bill Gunn, friendship networks were the bedrock of creative expression. The Killing Floor brings those connections to light and refuses to reduce the thorny intricacies of personal relationships, creative expression, and political action.


1 David Bates notes that Williams’ status as an anti-union agitator blunts the realities of his relationship to the uniting, writing that “Williams claimed he had decided to sign a union card on several occasions, but each time…[he felt] antagonized” since union members would, in Williams words, “put something on the board to bully you with.” See David Bates, The Ordeal of the Jungle: Race and the Chicago Federation of Labor 1903-1922 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2019), 103.

2 The Killing Floor had a troubled history and American Playhouse was not an uncomplicated home. Originally conceived in the late 1970s, the film was meant to be one entry in a series of ten films about American labor from 1835-1945 produced by Elsa Rassbach. To this day, it is the only produced film in the proposed series. See Mel Tapley, "Gordon's war to save Leadbelly" New York Amsterdam News, April 24, 1976:D8 and Addison Verrill, "Par Rebuts Parks' 'Diller Bias' Crack" Variety, April 28, 1976: 5, 30.

3 Jessie Maple, How to Become a Union Camerawoman: Film-Videotape (New York: L. J. Film Productions, 1977), 1.

4 LeRoi Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: William and Morrow Company, 1963), 148.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.