April 10, 1984

On PBS, a tale of racial struggle
By David Bianculli

Frank Custer was a black sharecropper who left the South in 1917 to find work in "the promised land" of Chicago. The Killing Floor, tonight's installment of PBS's American playhouse,"tells his true story--and tells it very, very well.

The Killing Floor (Channel 12 at 9) uses Custer, played by Damien Leake, as both hero and narrator. "The war come, and all of a sudden there was jobs up north," Custer says, beginning his tale. It's a tale that starts slowly, but the pace quickens once Custer gets a job in a meatpacking plant.

When Custer enters that eight-story building, he steps into another world--a dark and dismal one. On every floor, workers are slaughtering, butchering and processing cattle by the hundreds. The stench is inescapable, the work areas overcrowded, the conditions deplorable.

"Everybody turning that cow into little bits and pieces, "Custer describes the scene, "and they didn't waste nothin'. "He starts work in one of the worst areas, with one of the worst jobs--cleaning blood off "the killing floor, "where the animals are slaughtered.

But by the time The Killing Floor is over, Custer has risen to the rank of butcher, joined the local union and become a vocal advocate of workers' rights. His advocacy, at one point, threatens to lead to Custer's last stand: As the drama unfolds, the issue of unionism leads to the Chicago race riots of 1919. read more>>
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