Sixty-six-year-old British documentarian Nick Broomfield didn't blend in when he went cruising around South Central Los Angeles to retrace a 22-year serial killing spree for his upcoming doc Tales of the Grim Sleeper. Even with local prostitutes, crack addicts, and know-it-alls riding shotgun, the fearless filmmaker and his cameraman stuck out. Not that Broomfield cared, even though accused murderer Lonnie Franklin was popular on these streets. When three neighbors of Franklin try to chase him off by hollering “peckerwood,” Broomfield shrugs, “I thought that word was an endearing term,” and promptly crosses the street to say hello.
Faux naivety is Broomfield's weapon. He wades in deep, then slices himself up as chum. By using gentle, earnest questions, he can charm anyone. (At least, anyone who hasn't been warned by Broomfield's ire-inducing docs Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac, which made enemies of Courtney Love and Suge Knight.) Broomfield also has patience and an eye for the absurd. Watching footage of Franklin entering a courtroom, he notes that the man who preyed on women is clutching a Nora Roberts paperback romance.
Back on the street, those three men warm up to Broomfield and give the camera good soundbites about their friendship with Lonnie Franklin.
“He didn't steal cars—he dealt in stolen cars,” one insists. “He dealt in a shitload of stolen cars!” another cackles. But despite swearing to Franklin's innocence, they continue to spend more days with Broomfield until they feel comfortable telling him things they never told the cops. They tell Broomfield about the handcuffs in Franklin's car, the gun he kept in his front pocket, the time he hit a girl in broad daylight. They even hand Broomfield snapshots Franklin took of naked women, many of whom are still missing today. Based on a second box of snapshots found in Franklin's closet, the police estimate up to 180 women are unaccounted for.
And they aren't the only residents who open up to Broomfield, some by pure happenstance. There's the man who rode with Franklin as he decided which female drug addicts to abduct, the man who cleaned dark stains out of Franklin's shag van. “When you find bloody clothes in a car, don't you think that's a little odd?” asks Broomfield. “Not really,” the friend replies, and Broomfield lets the absurd moment linger. There's the babysitter of Chris Franklin, Lonnie's son, who let Dad tie her up with a dog leash, and Chris' ex-girlfriend, who found lace panties and sexy Polaroids in the van's glovebox and says Lonnie would listen at the door as they had sex.
Best of all, there's Pam, an outspoken newly sober streetwalker who knows everyone in South Central. “I'm a black woman—who gives a fuck about me?” grumbles Pam. But to the film, she's invaluable. Pam identifies some of the girls in Franklin's photos and helps Broomfield track them down, which the police haven't done.
In their interviews, we realize that the Grim Sleeper didn't just let one victim escape. There were at least a half-dozen, none of whom ever spoke to the police.
Why didn't anyone in Tales of the Grim Sleeper tell their stories to the LAPD? With Franklin already in jail—though frustratingly, not yet on trial after four years in custody—that's the main question of the film. Broomfield has two answers: First, because no one wants to risk earning a reputation as a snitch. Second, because the cops never asked. (The LAPD also refused to talk to Broomfield's cameras, and their silence speaks volumes.)
In this generation, the LAPD referred to the unsolved murders of addicts and prostitutes as “NHI”—“No Human Involved.” The South Central cops ignored two decades of community pressure before admitting that the Grim Sleeper existed, telling one activist outright that he's “only killing hookers.” Enietra Margette Washington, the only Grim Sleeper victim the LAPD initially interviewed, described Franklin's rare Pinto to the police and drove them to Franklin's exact street, only to be dismissed as “unreliable.” Washington rolls her eyes: “Every black woman is a hooker, didn't you know?”
Even one of the leaders from the local group Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders who pressed for more police involvement in the case agrees that actually calling the police is futile.
“You cannot just as a black person walk into an LAPD, LASD station and say, 'I have something to report,'” the activist sighs. “It is a 99 percent chance that it is going to be an unpleasant situation for you.”
Broomfield isn't as scared. When he's pulled over by the LAPD for driving without a seatbelt, he cheerfully uses the opportunity to ask the cops what they know about the case—an ultimate, if inadvertent moment of white privilege.
Still, the documentary whispers what Broomfield doesn't dare say outright: that the cops might have sympathized with the Grim Sleeper's urge to get crack whores off the streets.
“This is not just a story about Lonnie, but about a people in one of the world's most prosperous cities that have been left behind,” cautions Broomfield. But while Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a South Central story, the tensions it raises stretch beyond Los Angeles to Ferguson, Missouri and beyond.
Warns Pam, “Just because they have Lonnie doesn't mean this is over.”
See also: Grim Sleeper's Sole Survivor
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