By Dominic Preston.
In Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Nick Broomfield offers a study of Lonnie Franklin, the man suspected of being serial killer ‘the Grim Sleeper’. Franklin stands accused of murdering ten women in South Central Los Angeles between 1985 and his arrest in 2010, but it’s suspected that he could have killed more than a hundred in total.
Denied the opportunity to interview any city officials or police officers involved in the case, Broomfield’s focus is less on the question of whether Franklin committed the crimes or why he might have, but how a community in one of the world’s most prosperous cities could let someone get away with those crimes for 25 years or more.
Broomfield shows us a city that has abandoned its black population. Police were reportedly reticent to investigate a killer who only targeted black prostitutes and crack cocaine addicts, releasing vital information and witness sketches to the public decades after the fact. The problem is exacerbated by a community reluctant to turn to the police. In one of the film’s most haunting sequences, a succession of women discuss their encounters with Franklin, some lucky to escape alive, putting lie to the official claim that the Grim Sleeper only had one surviving victim. None of these women ever told their stories to the police, either because they didn’t see the point or simply because they feared imprisonment for their own drug use.
The film presents little reason to doubt Franklin’s guilt for the murders, despite early protestations of his innocence from some neighbours. Even here, though, the seeds of doubt have clearly crept in, as almost everyone initially eager to defend the “nice” Franklin ultimately reveals some encounter that revealed a dark edge to the man, and a troubled relationship with sexuality and violence. Even Franklin’s own son, apparently hesitantly agreeing to an interview, says little to deny his father’s guilt – though equally seems alarmingly unconcerned by that prospect.
It’s the victims’ voices that are undoubtedly the most powerful here, together with the knowledge that none would have been heard at all were it not for Broomfield’s film. Forgotten by the city, the police and the media, they tell the story of a community that has abandoned its women to drugs and prostitution, left them vulnerable and refused them help when they need it most. It is perhaps a surprisingly political film then, frequently suggesting that the Grim Sleeper would never have been at large for so long had he killed in Beverly Hills instead. But this is politics told through people, not ideas, and the film carries no message or ideal stronger than its pervading sense of sadness at lives lost and ruined.
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