PRINT April 2015


Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Nick Broomfield, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 110 minutes. Nick Broomfield and Pam Brooks.

HOW MANY WOMEN have been murdered by serial killers in South Los Angeles since the mid-1980s? No one knows. Police favor one number (the official tally is fifty-five, mapping to bodies found), while kin to the hundreds who have gone missing fear that the true figure is far higher.

Some things about the crimes are known—like the home address of the most infamous of the accused: 1728 West Eighty-First Street. Most other aspects elude us. Lonnie David Franklin Jr., who owns the house at 1728, currently awaits trial for ten homicides, but there is reason to fear he may have killed more than one hundred women. The additional dozens Franklin may have victimized await identification by other means, justice in other courts.

British documentarian Nick Broomfield’s profoundly unsettling new film, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, doesn’t unpack the story of Franklin and his victims so much as nimbly convey its patent social and investigative outrages. Broomfield tools around South LA (much of Grim Sleeper is shot from inside his car), ferrying us to street corners and alleys associated with said outrages and inviting us to reel at their enormity. First among these is that the Los Angeles Police Department understood as early as 1985 that black women were being hunted down on its streets but marshaled little in the way of manpower or public awareness in response. Most of the victims were written up (and off) as dead prostitutes, their only advocates sisters, mothers, female friends, and community organizers such as Margaret Prescod and Nana Gyamfi of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders. We meet a young Prescod in file footage, calling for action back during Reagan’s second term, and a direct through line extends from her—the Black Coalition’s slogan? “Every life is of value”—to the women agitating to make black lives matter today.

All things being unequal, though, black women’s lives tend to matter least. Grim Sleeper provides numerous quick-cut proofs that indifference to working-class black women’s lives kept Franklin from being caught decades ago. Broomfield makes glib use of a fortuitous Google Street View frame that happens to capture Franklin at 1728’s front fence, but more damning are the missed opportunities of his fifteen arrests, mostly over stolen goods but also for assault, battery, and false imprisonment. In 1988, a woman who lived nearby was shot in the chest and raped by a man now believed to be Franklin. Broomfield finds her, and she tells about how she survived to offer a sketch of her assailant (never released to the public), how she identified his car (an orange Pinto) and even led the LAPD to a home just two down from 1728. It would be twenty-two years before a fluke DNA match (with Franklin’s son) brought detectives to the right door—a delay that allowed at least three more women to be fed into the maw.

Broomfield arrives well after Franklin’s nationally reported 2010 arrest in search of a way into this story. He navigates initially by file footage and incredulity, but soon finds an interim subject in Pam Brooks, a voluble ex-prostitute turned fixer who becomes his guide to South LA. If a doc about rape, murder, misogyny, and racism can be said to have good lines, they’re all hers, as when she counters Broomfield’s (put-on?) confusion about the nabe’s social realities with the clarity of a Venn diagram: It’s not like any of the victims was a “fuckin’ celebrity or, um, a white woman.”

Brooks fills the frame until Broomfield settles on Grim Sleeper’s ultimate narrative object: photographic metadata. Franklin was an enthusiastic producer of amateur pornography, his home containing hundreds of Polaroids and digital snaps and three decades’ worth of homemade videos. The LAPD never determined how many of the grainy, interstitial images depict additional victims, but Pam makes quick work of one set, pulling several of the pictured women out of obscurity to claim their images and continued existence. Like almost everyone with a crack-era story to tell, the women are worn, their eyes rheumy. Grim Sleeper seems undecided as to what counts as their greater feat: escaping a serial killer or surviving the prisonlike streets that contained him.

True to previous Nagra-and-boom-toting form, Broomfield plays his own ever-present straight man. At sixty-seven, he still cuts a trim, boyish, and incredibly white figure, his ease before his own lens still his primary stylistic innovation. Grim Sleeper treads ground well-worn by its director. This is Broomfield’s third film about serial murder, his seventh about sex work, and his second trip to South Los Angeles, the first having been for Biggie & Tupac (2002). That vividly conspiratorial hip-hop doc may be the most instructive precedent. Grim Sleeper walks the distaff side of the same streets but is tellingly bereft of the earlier film’s lyrically derived skeins of motive and declaration, its structured psychologies and supporting details. In Grim Sleeper, with the exception of Pam, the only person we might claim to know by credits’ roll is Franklin’s damaged son Chris, his few minutes on-screen revealing a lifetime of inchoate hurt. Of Lonnie Franklin we leave knowing little, of his victims less. Exactly why did this black man murder all these black women? About an hour and thirteen minutes in, an intimation comes, in a queasy, vertiginous flash, when two of Franklin’s neighborhood cronies begin to joke about all the kinds of women Lonnie hated. And just like that, it’s gone.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper airs on HBO beginning April 27.

Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles–based writer.