The Killing Floor

Damien Leake (left) plays a Chicago meatpacker who fights for an interracial union in the 1984 drama "The Killing Floor."

The phrase “labor of love” is overused, and perhaps a wince-inducing pun when referring to a movie about unions.

But how else to describe producer Elsa Rassbach’s years of effort to make the independent drama “The Killing Floor” in 1984, and then bring it back to theaters 36 years later in a new, digitally restored print?

The film’s long and twisted road brings it to the UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave., for a special screening at 7 p.m. Saturday. The screening is free and open to the public.

“There’s a whole thread of the labor movement in American history, and yes, this thread is (showing) up this election year,” Rassbach said in a phone interview from her home in Berlin. “It’s being included in some of the thoughts and ideas in the debate this year. So it is a very good year to bring the film out.”

“The Killing Floor” stars Damien Leake (“Apocalypse Now”) as a real-life Mississippi sharecropper named Frank Custer who heads to Chicago in 1919. He takes a job as a meatpacker in the city’s notorious Union Stock Yards, and while Custer and other black workers are initially ostracized by their white counterparts, he ends up working across racial divisions to form an interracial meatpackers’ union. The struggle plays out against the race riots in the city at that time.

The film’s impressive African American cast also includes Alfre Woodard and Moses Gunn, as well as before-they-were-famous performances by Chicago theater actors John Mahoney, Dennis Farina and Ted Levine. As producer, Rassbach made sure the film boasted African American talent behind the camera as well, with playwright Leslie Lee as screenwriter, Bill Duke as director, and John Carter as editor.

Rassbach attended film school in Berlin, and for her part has always found her artistic and political interests closely linked, studying the works of Bertold Brecht and Ken Loach.

“In different ways these artists all focused on the beauty and drama, the terror and ironies in the lives of ordinary people, making them the protagonists of their own sometimes heroic stories. The first film I ever shot was documentary material of women on the assembly line of a light bulb factory in Berlin; watching them do their work fascinated me.”

Coming back to America, she worked as a producer for public television station WGBH in Boston (she helped create the influential science series “Nova”) and had originally conceived of “The Killing Floor” as part of a 10-part series for “American Playhouse” that would chronicle a century of labor history in America.

In the end, only “Killing Floor” got made, and that was after years of work on Rassbach’s part. She wrote an 80-page storyline for the film based on her historical research. While PBS might be more likely to make a documentary about the events today rather than a narrative film, Rassbach believes a fictionalized film better captured the nuances of the struggle.

“These were people,” she said. “They were not just objects of collective bargaining. They were making decisions that were shaping our history. They were evolving, and changing, and sometimes in conflict with each other. There was no way to capture that complexity in a documentary when the subjects were no longer living.”

What she was not interested in was making a conventional dramatic film “based on a true story,” turning real-life characters into easily identifiable heroes and villains. “It was important that every character have their point of view, and have some justification for that point of view.”

It took years to raise the funds to make the $1.2 million film. Given that it was a film about labor, Rassbach didn’t think “The Killing Floor” should be financed primarily by public television’s usual corporate sponsors. So she cobbled together funding from some three dozen different unions, which still amounted to a minority of the overall funding.

“The Killing Floor” was made at a time when unions were under attack by President Ronald Reagan’s administration. But it was paradoxically also a time of optimism in Chicago, which elected its first African American mayor, Harold Washington, during filming. Washington’s campaign found dozens of African American extras to appear for free in the film, and even the local Teamsters worked for half-pay because they believed in the project.

“The Killing Floor” aired on PBS in 1984, and then in a reversal of the usual distribution flow began appearing at festivals like Cannes and Sundance (then called the U.S. Film Festival). For decades afterward, it was largely unavailable except through VHS copies, until Rassbach pushed to have a restored print made. She gave the original 16mm negatives to the UCLA Film & Television Archives, and Film Movement has agreed to release the film on Blu-ray sometime later this year.

After 35 years, “The Killing Floor” has never looked as good as it does today, and its message about race relations and workers’ rights hasn’t dimmed.

“I don’t see ‘The Killing Floor’ as an activist film,” Rassbach said. “It is a film that tries to tell a true story in history as it was lived, and some may see that as radical.”