Filmmaker Nick Broomfield flew to St. Louis last night for an emergency screening of “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” his latest documentary exploring L.A.-based serial killer and rapist Lonnie Franklin, who has been linked by DNA evidence to the murders of 10 women–mostly black, mostly prostitutes.
As though that isn’t sufficiently disturbing, the documentary attacks racial tensions blistering underneath the hard facts of the case, and extends further to expose years of colossally negligent police work surrounding the murders of black women. In an unsuspecting art gallery on 14th Avenue in Old North St. Louis where the film screened, the air was rife with a powerful energy, fueled by a city that has recently become a destination for those crusading to end the devaluing of black lives.
After the screening, Broomfield was joined for a panel discussion by Margaret Prescod, who founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders and is featured at several points in the film. She created the organization after discovering that dozens of black women were disappearing in the LA area, never accounted for. “It’s raw. It’s very emotional,” she said in her opening remarks, kicking off the conversation in front of an utterly aghast audience, who attempted to process what they’d just seen.
It was harrowing, to say the least: Prescod made her first appearance onscreen alongside the mother of one of Franklin’s victims, 25-year-old Janecia Peters, who’d been shot in the back and dumped in a garbage bag. Prescod recalled pressing the L.A. Police Department to take stronger action against the serial murders, and was told, “Why do you care? He’s only killing prostitutes.” As this moment played out onscreen, an audience member audibly gasped and said, “Can you imagine if that happened in Beverly Hills? If these were white UCLA students, with blonde hair and blue eyes?” Unanimous nods of agreement rippled through the diverse audience.
Amid the most recent wave of protests, looting, and rioting, St. Louis has become unrecognizable — hence, why the film was shown here with such pressing urgency. Commanding the room, Tory Russell of Hands Up United said, “I want to get free!” He founded the local organization after Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by a police officer on August 9th.
“I’m going to work to get free and free everyone else, whether you with me or not,” he said. “This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement.”
Among the audience members who spoke during the Q&A was Reverend Carl Smith, a 22-year veteran of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, who retired in 2001. He said that while active in the police force, he couldn’t discuss the corruption that occurred behind closed doors. But now he’s free to speak out. “I’d like to see the Department of Justice come in and do a real investigation,” he said. “This is a movement people definitely did not expect in St. Louis. There are blacks, whites, Latinos — everybody. Because that’s what it takes.”
When Prescod tried to steer the discussion back to the film, Broomfield stopped her. “They don’t have to talk about the film — they can talk about … whatever!” said he said. Someone exclaimed, “We need to be able to stand up for ourselves!” while another added, “It’s mind-blowing to me that this can happen.”
While the anger in the room during the discussion was palpable, at its end the room erupted into something that could only be described as a celebration: people greeted one another, praised the documentarian’s vital work, hugged, and took selfies. An impromptu receiving line abounded around the panel participants, as people waited their their turn to congratulate each one. It was a remarkable sight after such a chilling, topical work. “We’re here because this place has sparked a movement that says black live matter,” said Prescod. “We are on the way to building the kind of movement we need.”