Filming history responsibly is one of the fundamental challenges of the modern cinema: How to reflect the gap of time separating filmmakers from the events they’re depicting, while still managing to depict those distant events with emotional immediacy? (These questions were of less concern in the era of classical cinema, when filmmakers took for granted their ability to represent all forms of experience, recent or ancient.) Bill Duke’s first feature, “The Killing Floor,” from 1984 (a digital release ), displays an ingenious approach to the matter, bringing a straightforward story and a distinct historical period movingly, passionately to life.

2020欧洲杯体育在线网址To even say what the film is “about” is to get caught in its prismatic complexities. It’s set between 1917 and 1919 and is centered on Frank Custer (Damien Leake), a young black man from the rural South who, in the company of his best friend, Thomas Joshua (Ernest Rayford), heads to Chicago by freight train in search of work. (They know that the U.S.’s entry into the First World War has left jobs to be filled, as men go off to fight.) Finding cheap lodgings on the city’s South Side, they’re sent by a politically connected middleman (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to a meat-packing plant, where they’re plucked by a white foreman from a crowd of applicants and put to work—to the dismay of many white workers. The industry is in the midst of a major unionization push, and black laborers had resisted joining, owing to distrust of the white-led unions (which previously had excluded them), and for fear of losing hard-won jobs (white employees fired for union sympathies had many more alternatives than black employees did).

Frank is energetic, perspicacious, and ambitious. He wants, in the short term, to earn a better wage so that his wife, Mattie (Alfre Woodard), and their children can afford to move north and live with him; in the long term, he wants to master a trade with a promising future. He’s also courageous, not hesitating to face down a white worker who menaces him with a knife. Frank gets recruited for the union, and the shop’s head organizer, Bill Bremer (Clarence Felder), teaches Frank to become a butcher. His family is able to join him in Chicago. But, after the war ends, soldiers return home to reclaim their former jobs, and black workers are the first to be laid off. The meat-packing workers’ union drive continues nonetheless—and laid-off black workers are hired by the owners as scabs, in the hope of breaking the union. The resulting tensions contribute to the Chicago race riots in the summer of 1919, which has a devastating effect on Frank and his family, and on the entire South Side community.

2020欧洲杯体育在线网址A title card at the beginning of the film states that the story “is based on actual events,” and that the names of the main players have not been changed. Many of them are officials of one sort or another, including the union leaders John Fitzpatrick (James O’Reilly) and Jack Johnstone (Patrick Nugent), and their intricate set of motives, and political and social calculus, are built remarkably into the film’s action. (A vast amount of research clearly went into writing it; the unusual writing credits attribute the story to Elsa Rassbach, the adaptation to Ron Milner, and the screenplay to Leslie Lee.) At the same time, “The Killing Floor” presents, in fascinating dialectical wrangles, the large-scale political events of the time: the maneuvering of the federal government to maintain peace among workers while protecting big-business interests; the reliance of those interests on stoking ethnic divisions (not just racial ones but also those between longtime citizens and recent immigrants); and conflicts of class and culture within the black community. It also depicts, in fine-grained yet high-relief detail, the widespread and unchallenged racism of daily life in Chicago and in the nation at large.

Duke’s directorial imagination endows the very act of historical representation with political power. The entire movie is dramatized from the penetrating perspective of Frank, who appears in every scene. The film also includes his retrospective voice-over narration, in which he analyzes the political and psychological aspects of what he learned from the events he lived through. By telling the story with such thoroughgoing subjectivity, Duke represents history in the form of first-person experience—of personal memory that reflects collective events and, for that matter, treats the two domains as inseparable. The movie contains an extraordinarily large number of scenes, many of them short—a mere wink of an event that proves to have outsized importance. But such scenes—depicting a wide range of settings, from homes and bars to streets and stockyards, meeting halls and government offices and the sepulchral menace of the meat-packing plant’s confines—never feel merely illustrative, or like dutiful translations of the script. Whether brief or ample, intimate or teeming, each of them converges around Frank’s retrospective point of view, which Duke conveys by way of a distinctive visual schema: he films the scenes largely with a tableau-like frontality, trading Hollywood’s usual multiplicity of angles for the protagonist’s own frame of reference. Duke intercuts archival and newsreel footage into the dramatic scenes, and includes title cards listing the dates of the events in question. These techniques serve, simultaneously, to set off the dramatizations as latter-day artifices and to verify them as authentic parts of the historical record.

The sense of authenticity in “The Killing Floor” arises, too, from the vividness and the veracity of the emotions—owing in large measure to the film’s performances. There’s Moses Gunn, as Heavy Williams, a tough-minded and quick-witted Texan who invests his suspicions of the union and its white leaders with grand rhetorical power; Mary Alice Smith, as Lilah Dean, a clothing-store owner who encourages Frank in his practical steps to advancement; Felder, who, as Bill, is reminiscent of William Bendix in his embodiment of thoughtful pugnacity; Woodard, who, as Mattie, puts Frank’s conflicts into the perspective of the family’s and the community’s future; and Rayford, who, as Thomas, Frank’s best friend, conveys deep-rooted and righteous rage of tragic potential. With “The Killing Floor,” Duke does more than dramatize a crucial historical moment and its critical conflicts of power. He sets forth an original and fruitful template for the cinematic analysis of social systems and confrontation with history.