South Central Films

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

3.5 out of 53.5 out of 53.5 out of 53.5 out of 5 3.5

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There’s a scene from Nick Broomfield’s Biggie & Tupac in which Sonia Flores is asked about her polyamorous relationships with various LAPD officers, who are suspected of being complicit in the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace. Broomfield asks if the officers shared her sexually, to which Flores emphatically replies, “No, I shared them.” Such a rhetorical shift epitomizes the humanistic fidelity that only Broomfield’s hands-on documentary approach could yield, which is less concerned with comprehensive historicity regarding a case file than affording agency to otherwise marginalized voices surrounding the larger implications of the case at hand.

In that regard, Tales of the Grim Sleeper is something of his magnum opus, with the film’s entirety constructed around the people occupying the streets and neighborhoods of South Central, where a man named Lonnie Franklin allegedly raped and murdered nearly a dozen black women over a span of 25 years. Broomfield begins with an image from Google Earth, before zooming down to street level and actually pinpointing Franklin standing outside of his house. The irony of this beginning takes hold once Broomfield’s vernacularity subsumes the visual implications of such a totalizing perspective, allowing the documentary to play out along the lines of an all-too-real horror film. There’s a Michael Myers-type in the form of Franklin, certainly, but an even deeper, more insidious terror is located in a Los Angeles where fortress urbanism leaves many residents to survive by performing acts of self-flagellation, whether through drugs, prostitution, or murder. Thus, Broomfield isn’t so much dedicated to journalistic truth or social ethnography as he is displaying bodies and mindsets of individuals that complicate any sense of Manichean polemics, where good and evil must be reckoned with at a purely secular and corporeal level, particularly along the lines of class and gender.

Although the film outwardly shares similarities with Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer through its focus on a serial killer, a more complex kinship is to be found in Broomfield’s engagement with female psychology as it pertains to the brutality of hegemonic orders, be they juridical, sexual, or socio-economic. The camera lingers on Pam, for instance, a former prostitute and crack addict who assists Broomfield in searching for dozens of missing women believed to have known or been abused by Franklin. Pam’s demeanor vacillates from helpful to frustrated at points, but her insights about the neighborhood remain candid no matter the intonation. She jokingly criticizes a local prostitute for not wearing any underwear in one breath, then lambasts the LAPD for viewing black women as sub-human in the next. This confluence of love and anger culminates in an outburst where she exclaims, “I don’t give a fuck about Lonnie,” before calming down and pointing out Franklin’s son, Chris, just a few moments later. Broomfield captures a proliferative sense of autonomous incapacity within the influence of systemic exploitation, where the only recourse for cathartic release is to assume one’s position within a food chain of violence, harming those within arms reach.

Broomfield meticulously frames his engagements with the South Central residents as dedicated to illuminating how personal strife consistently traces to economic subalimentation and historical degradation. Broomfield isn’t exempt from this, himself, as several of Franklin’s male friends shout at and call him a “peckerwood” while interviewing some women. Broomfield takes the occasion to interview the men, who are suspicious of Franklin’s guilt. “That’s our neighbor,” they repeat while explaining their decades-long friendship. Subsequent interviews with the men further establish various affectations of masculine decorum dictating their social engagement, which includes laughing at Franklin being a good car thief, while experiencing cognitive dissonance over the prospect of a man having “a value of life” while also committing such heinous murders. These views are aided by those of Margaret Prescod, whose involvement with the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders reveals the LAPD’s apathy in catching Franklin, to the extent that several of the murders weren’t reported in the Los Angeles Times or even local news broadcasts, despite the fact that the police force had reason to believe an active serial killer was on the loose as soon as the late 1980s. Proving Franklin’s guilt in Tales of the Grim Sleeper becomes less essential than reiterating the continued complicity of a police state in aiding the systematic erosion of black communities.

Nevertheless, Broomfield keeps his focus with the victims, most notably in a late series of interviews that find the filmmaker adopting a mostly hands-off approach as various women tell fragments of their survival stories. In accordance with the ethos implemented, these are the Final Girls of Tales of the Grim Sleeper’s multi-layered horror story, only there’s little sense of resolution or safety whatsoever, as Pam emphatically states, “Just because they have Lonnie doesn’t mean this is over with. There’s another motherfucker out there just as sick as he is.” As Broomfield has shown, that sickness may take the form and blame of a singular individual, as it has through media outlets with both Lonnie Franklin and Aileen Wuornos. However, as indicated through the heavy breathing on a hip-hop track that plays several times throughout the film, there’s another, more intangible presence in the form of governmental reign that looms larger, instilling a crippling dread that’s far too foundational to be singularly personified.

HBO Documentary Films
105 min
Nick Broomfield