From 1985 to 2010, over the span of 25 years, a serial killer dubbed the Grim Sleeper terrorized a community in South Central Los Angeles. The case is still pending with Lonnie Franklin, who has been accused of killing at least ten women, waiting for trial.
In “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” which had its Los Angeles premiere at AFI Fest yesterdaym Nick Broomfield, an established documentarian whose movies includes “Kurt & Courtney” and “Biggie and Tupac,” delves into the aftermath of the murders and the overarching effect that they have had on the community and those closest to Lonnie. Though the film focuses and recounts the story of the Grim Sleeper, it also offers a textured context that reaches outside of the subject matter, allowing for a larger scope needed to come close to comprehending such a horrific and tragic piece of non-fiction.
The film opens up with a geographical thumbtack, courtesy of Google Maps, which pinpoints Lonnie’s house and neighborhood. Bars on windows, chipping paint, and an underground market for car parts handled in garages (Lonnie’s being the center of it all). The surrounding area is dilapidated and disenfranchised; the people feeling the brute end of socio-economic stick. Left to their own devices, the community, rife with drugs and prostitution, struggles to keep afloat. Many of the victims were prostitutes or the unaccounted homeless accustomed to the cycle of drugs and poverty. In fact, according to those who encountered him in his search for their favors, he used crack cocaine as bait. In a sense, drugs were the other serial killer, creating the conditions in which the murders could endure.
As the murders began to surface, the authorities seem to have sung an indifferent tune, especially since many of the victims were black or black prostitutes (Pam Brooks, a former crack addict and prostitute, becomes a formidable force within the film). This blatant apathy led Margaret Prescod to create the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, a highly specific organization and cause but unfortunately, the only party willing to take any action. This degree of underrepresentation and unwillingness to cooperate is rooted in the ongoing tensions of gender, class, and race. In fact, the authorities did not release pertinent information until twenty-two years later, leaving many unaware of such a crime spree and therefore, unable to take preventive measures. When questioned as to why they did not release any witness-sketches, which they had at their disposal, the police claimed that such tools were unreliable. Prescod argues that if this had happened under different circumstances with different people (consider a White blonde girl in the Valley), things would have panned out in a whole other way. Following Lonnie’s capture, the mayor and police officials held a press conference in which they congratulated themselves for a job well done after “two decades of exhaustive detective work.” Broomfield himself sums it up well: “The lack of concern allowed this hunting ground.”
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is a story about a serial killer but more importantly “about people of one of the most prosperous cities, left behind”. The film accomplishes what many social documentaries aspire; it hands the ignored a megaphone with which their voices can be heard which in turn will hopefully create the change and justice that the community needs and seeks.