Tales of the Grim Sleeper at the NYFF

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Lonnie Franklin, Jr., is accused of murdering at least 10 women and possibly up to 180 over 30 years; investigations are still pending as is his trial. The crimes took place in south Los Angeles, Franklin’s home and that of a primarily Black population with a heavy history of drug-related crime, prostitution, and all the negative perceptions that come along with both. But did those perceptions contribute to how long it took the LAPD to investigate the case? That’s one of the questions posed by Tales of the Grim Sleeper, a documentary film titled after the serial killer’s moniker. The film explores the deep divide between South LA’s people and the police sworn to protect them and how that mutual mistrust may have affected the investigation. 

 

A Main Slate selection at the 52nd New York Film Festival, Tales of the Grim Sleeper was directed by Nick Broomfield, winner of Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival for Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) and an early innovator in the field of participatory and activist documentary film. Along with his son Barney, who doubled as Tale of the Grim Sleeper’s director of photography, and with the aide of South LA local Pam Brooks, who was recruited to be their guide, Nick tours the neighborhood, meeting Franklin’s friends and other community members and learning how, with plenty of crack addicts around, Franklin’s strong eccentricities were easily overlooked and why catching the suspect was delayed so long. As the case against Franklin strengthens, so does the case for a miscarriage of justice for the Grim Sleeper’s victims at the hands of the LAPD. 

 

It’s that last point that Nick first explains during our interview with him on the NYFF red carpet. Initially, the sharpness of the divide between the police and community members was surprising to him. As he shares, children in South LA are taught not to dial 911 in case of emergency—parents are scared of how the LAPD will respond.

 

 

Nick clarifies that in a neighborhood full of recovering and current drug addicts, it’s obvious how Franklin’s acquaintances didn’t consider him that out of the ordinary despite plenty of strange behavior. He goes on to explain the term NHI that comes up in the film, a term applied to the deaths of supposed low-lifes. Low-life is an apt word for how they were treated by the justice system once they stop breathing as well.

 

 

As Nick concludes in that clip, once you get to know the people of South LA for who they are rather than how they’re perceived, you’re seeing another story entirely. The resident who left the strongest impression on Nick and on the theater audience is of course Pam Brooks, the former drug addict and prostitute who Nick described as their team’s mother hen in our first clip. 

 

 

We talked with Pam before the film as well. She filled us in on her history in South LA, why she took the job of chauffeuring the Broomfields around, and her hopes for the documentary to expose the lack of value given to the lives of people labelled NHI victims, people who deserved the same chances she has had to forge a better existence.

 

Six years sober and working as a caretaker is a great achievement! Well done, Pam.

 

 

Our final interview is with Barney Broomfield, who was excited to talk about his filmmaking family and how that all falls away in the midst of the work. He also explained why he used the two cameras he did to shoot the film—turns out practicality matters even to artists. 

 

 

 

Were the people of this community more exposed to a serial killer because they were viewed as disposable by the city of Los Angeles? If Lonnie Franklin, Jr., is convicted, how many of his victims might have been saved if he couldn’t so easily fade into the fabric of South LA? For its powerful explorations of those questions alone, Tales of the Grim Sleeper deserves to be told.

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