Presciently arriving at a time when tumultuous relations
between U.S. police departments and communities of color have spawned a
movement that proclaims “Black Lives Matter,” Nick Broomfield’s documentary
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” introduces a countervailing term: “NHI,” or “no
That, we learn in this disturbing study of urban crime, is
what Los Angeles police would write, in code to each other, on reports where
the victims were minority drug abusers, prostitutes or gang members. Such
social marginals, the cops evidently thought, almost deserved to be knocked
off, and the community at large was better off without them. Why give
investigations of their deaths the kind of seriousness the community would
expect of more well-heeled—and/or white—citizens?
Such attitudes on the part of law enforcement officials, the
film pointedly suggests, go a long way toward explaining how a man like Lonnie
Franklin, Jr., could prey on lower-class women and kill more than a hundred of
them over three decades, becoming perhaps the worst serial killer in U.S.
history. Franklin was arrested, almost by accident, in 2010, and his case is
still wending its way through the courts. The judicial system thus has not
delivered a final assessment of his culpability for a staggeringly long series
of cold-blooded murders, usually involving torture. But the film makes a
powerful case that his misdeeds were enabled by a culture in which many black
lives did not, in fact, matter.
According to new reports cited in the film, Franklin is
suspected of killings that began in the 1980s. The media of later times dubbed
him “the grim sleeper” because there was a long hiatus between those killings
and others that came to light in more recent years. But was Franklin really
inactive during that period or was law enforcement simply not paying attention?
For viewers not familiar with the style of documentary
filmmaking that Nick Broomfield has practiced in recent years, it’s akin to the
anecdotal, first-person mode employed by Ross McElwee, Michael Moore and Morgan
Spurlock. The British filmmaker often appears on-screen, here usually wearing a
t-shirt and the headphones and tape recorder of a soundman. Offering occasional
laconic commentary, he motors around looking for people who can give him
information about the case and filming the places the crimes reportedly took
Most of those locales are in the poor South Central area of
Los Angeles, a world away from the swimming pools and mansions of Hollywood and
Beverly Hills. The most vivid and important location is Lonnie Franklin’s home,
a fairly ordinary ranch house with a decent-sized, fenced-in front yard and
rear garage. It’s here that, according to reports, Franklin would bring the
women he picked up—usually black prostitutes or drug addicts—and engage in
rough sex before killing them.
How could he get away with it for so long? Did others not
know what he was up to? As Broomfield circles through South Central, he
encounters and interviews several black men who were Franklin’s friends. They
paint a picture of a guy who in many senses was fairly unremarkable. Sure, he
dealt in stolen cars, but he was decent and helped his neighbors. Some of these
men knew of Franklin’s interest in picking up women, but this wasn’t considered
unusual, though he was married to a church-going woman who apparently spent a
lot of time away from him. At least one man accompanied Lonnie when he took the
women home, but claims he didn’t know about the murders.
Broomfield also talks with several women who knew Franklin
and his milieu. Some serve as his tour guides, though there’s evidently some
risk in a black woman showing a white man around the ‘hood. (With one small
exception, it’s never mentioned whether he paid for such help.) He meets one
woman who is supposedly the only person to have survived one of Franklin’s
attacks, and she calmly tells him how Lonnie shot her after sex. But then it
emerges that there were other survivors of his garage death-chamber—not one
but several. Broomfield talks to them all.
The picture that emerges from these
conversations is one of a social arena where poor women are simply disposable.
The men in the community don’t care about them, most other women don’t care,
and the police in general (none of whom submit to the interviews that
Broomfield requests) don’t care and don’t engage, in part because they’re
feared and mistrusted. One black woman tells how she instructs her son: if
there’s ever any trouble, here’s a list of friends and relatives to call—do not call 911, because that will bring
the police and, with them, more trouble than you’ve already got.
If there are any heroic figures in this sad tale, it’s the
women of Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, a grassroots activists
organization that took notice of the killings back in the ‘80s and spent
decades trying to bring official and media attention to them. Their efforts
certainly made a difference, yet when random DNA computer tests result in
Franklin’s apprehension, the powers-that-be in L.A.—including the police
chief, mayor and once-and-future governor Jerry Brown—hold a
self-congratulatory news conference in which they make it seem that the Grim
Sleeper case was finally solved as a result of diligent police concern and
All the evidence that Broomfield presents suggests
otherwise. Yet “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is less polemical or argumentative
than it is descriptive, almost anthropological. Viewers of different political
persuasions might well interpret its findings differently. Yet the film’s
gradual, observant accumulation of details has a singular and lasting power:
you won’t forget the troubled, troubling world that Broomfield shows you.