AFI Fest 2014 Review: “Tales of the Grim Sleeper”

Nick Broomfield's documentary "Tales of the Grim Sleeper" played AFI Fest 2014 at in the Special Screenings section.On July 7, 2010, Lonnie Franklin Jr. was arrested at his South Los Angeles home in connection with the “Grim Sleeper” murders — at least ten, but potentially several more, homicides that occurred from 1985 to 1988 and then, after a long hiatus, from 2002 to 2007. DNA evidence connected Franklin to the murders, and an extensive collection of naked photographs of unconscious women found inside his home further corroborated the narrative that he behaved in unsavory ways. While Franklin currently awaits trial, documentarian Nick Broomfield’s new documentary “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” avoids unnecessarily lingering on the age-old question of “What would make a serial killer commit such heinous crimes?” If Franklin is indeed guilty, then perhaps Broomfield will revisit the case in another doc, more in line with his work on Eileen Wuornos. But for now, Broomfield instead asks a question of broader significance: What is systemically broken about the community where these crimes could continue for so long, without an exhaustive manhunt and/or extensive media coverage?

While Broomfield’s respectfulness toward the victims of the Grim Sleeper’s crimes never wavers, the greater tragedy of “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” lies in the fact that so many murders ravaged South LA during the 1980s that the serial killer’s actions could be treated by the police as a non-issue, swept under the rug with literally hundreds of gang- and drug-related homicides. Twenty years later, even after notable civic progress, the song remained the same; Lonnie Franklin was arrested in a near-fluke confluence of events rather than as a result of industrious police-work. The mainstream media’s current fixation on a single police incident in Ferguson, Mo., which may or may not have been racially motivated, seems almost perverse when one examines their complete obliviousness to the institutionalized racism chronicled in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper.” Broomfield depicts the harrowing environment in which dozens of murders were virtually ignored by the police and the media because they were assumed to be black-on-black crime and therefore insignificant, a trend that continues in South LA and many other urban areas of the U.S.

Broomfield focuses much of his attention on what it is like to live in this community, turning his lens on both the direst of situations—a nighttime drive by a crack-den will result in more viewer heart palpitations than any horror movie this year—and reasons for hope, like the crusaders of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders. There is even room for a few light jokes, mostly courtesy of Broomfield’s tour guide Pam, a former prostitute who used to walk the streets that the Grim Sleeper preyed upon. Now reformed and sober, Pam often becomes the star of the movie with her whip-smart sense of humor, referring to Broomfield and his cinematographer son Barney as her “friends from England” whenever locals bat an eye at their Mercedes-Benz (a confusing rental car selection for this assignment). But even though there are laughs along the way, one can’t help but feel like Pam and the Broomfields are surveying a warzone, reaching out to survivors for their battle stories. The Grim Sleeper’s crimes were heinous and significant, but they account for but a small part of the damage inflicted in a larger struggle that the rest of Los Angeles—and the country—prefer to not even acknowledge.