“This is not the life I wanted.”
In 2010, a man named Lonnie Franklin was arrested on suspicion of committing a number of murders of black prostitutes in South Central LA. This was hailed as a great victory by law enforcement and government agencies in the area, the culmination of a twenty-year investigation during which a staggering number of women were murdered, some still missing. A few years later, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield arrives on the scene to take in Franklin’s neighbourhood and talk to the community about their perspective on the case. Turns out that the story the LAPD and co. told wasn’t the complete one.
In Tales of the Grim Sleeper we find what could easily have been a true crime pulp murder piece develop into a searing indictment of LA law enforcement, and a captivating glimpse into the lives of a community not necessarily broken, but continually defined, by the unchecked abandon with which Franklin was evidently able to go about his murders. Using Franklin’s case as a framework of sorts to draw us into a mosaic of the voiceless lives of neighbours, addicts, prostitutes, family members, protesters, and in a key sequence, victims; Broomfield sketches a community where the police are just as feared and reviled as Franklin (aka the Grim Sleeper) for their evident disregard of black lives.
The film arrives at a potent time – American unrest over the treatment of black communities are making headlines, and a call for an overhaul of the way subtle racism defines so many of the most crime-ridden areas of the US hang like a cloud over the proceedings, as Broomfield and his colleagues go about their investigation. There are a number of bracing, and chilling moments and images – Broomfield is pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt, but it is his black interview subject in the backseat who displays open fear and discomfort as the police pull up. At another point; a local ex-prostitute and recovering crack addict named Pam, leads the filmmakers on a tour of the local prostitute hangouts, leading to the tragic and surreal image of a prostitute walking away from them, to reveal that she is naked from the waist down in the middle of a busy LA street.
The film reveals a city in microcosm – a place so continually abused by outside forces that they find a way to survive as a community of hustlers, hookers, addicts, pimps and criminals, because that is the way they are profiled, and there is no way out. Unforgettable faces come out of the woodwork; witnesses of Franklin’s crimes that the LAPD never bothered to interview, including a homeless man who was present for multiple tortures and murders; Franklin’s son Christopher, whose involvement and moral standing remain ambiguous even through a telling late-game interview; and an ex-girlfriend of Christopher’s, who got an up close view of a severely fractured family. And then there’s Pam, who becomes a kind of anchor and spirit-guide, a damaged and flawed heroine of sorts who guides the fish-out-of-water filmmakers into, and out, of a number of tense situations.
Narratively, the film builds and burns, simmering towards an emotionally explosive final sequence that should leave viewers shaking with rage as the true magnitude of the traumatic and avoidable crimes the Grim Sleeper committed become evident. The decision of Broomfield to include himself and to narrate the film from his point of view is a strange one that never truly makes a case for its existence. Rather, the film is best when the filmmakers take a step back and let the characters and the place speak for themselves. The film does well to avoid soapbox lecturing – the overwhelming brokenness in the community and the need for change are apparent from the first frames, and only become clearer as Broomfield’s car trawls through the rundown streets. This is a film that could not be more relevant – an immense true crime case told intimately and with great heartbreak. See it and get enraged.