Tales of the Grim Sleeper



A famous case of serial killings in Los Angeles provides insight into American racism


Tales of the Grim Sleeper


It was made for television by Sky but this documentary from that British veteran of the genre Nick Broomfield received a limited release in cinemas.  It is a work that finds him on good form and it's a characteristic piece too since, as in so many of his films, Broomfield himself appears on screen in addition to providing a commentary. Here he is in Los Angeles, in South Central, investigating on camera the issues surrounding Lonnie Franklin, a black man accused of serial killings involving the murder of black women. When arrested in 2010 Franklin was accused of ten actual murders and one attempted one, but in point of fact he was suspected of killing as many as a hundred women over more than twenty years. The media made much of this possibility and, because within that period there was a huge gap of fourteen years, they coined the phrase 'the grim sleeper' when speculating on this murderer who mainly picked on hookers as his victims. That explains the title of this film and it doubtless makes good sense to American viewers already familiar with these crimes. For others the title will seem less apt since the wordplay on 'grim sleeper' and 'grim reaper' suggests a black comedy rather than the film we have here with all its harsh and disturbing realities.


But, even if it bore a more appropriate title, this is a work which ultimately would take most viewers by surprise since when its true impact emerges it extends well beyond the question of Franklin's guilt or innocence. Early on that has provided a starting point as we find Broomfield's engaging manner enabling him to win the confidence of relevant locals including friends of Franklin and the families of some of the victims - the key to this, however, had been the splendid Pamela Brooks, a former prostitute who was impressed by his concern and helped him gain the kind of access that a white man from England could never have managed on his own. What then emerges is a view of Franklin that is certainly no whitewash, but even so the viewer could well assume that as it proceeds this fine piece of investigative journalism on film will be a work that is going to pivot on whether or not the police have got the right man.


In the event though, although we are encouraged to speculate about this, Tales of the Grim Sleeper impresses most of all as a social study, one that reveals through many telling details how the authorities regard the black inhabitants of South Central as being beneath concern. Broomfield's film backed up by a fine score by H. Scott Salinas may be shade on the long side but it proves to be truly memorable as a very telling indictment of attitudes to black people that continue to persist in America. We learn that the LAPD refused to talk to him and no wonder given the fact that the label they attached in the 1980s to killings involving drug users and prostitutes in South Los Angeles comprised just three words: 'No humans involved'.




Featuring  Nick Broomfield, Pamela Brooks, Lonnie Franklin Jr., Chris Franklin, Seymour Amster, Laverne Peters, Margaret Prescod, Diana Ware, Nana Gyamfi, Dion Browning, Enietra Washington.


Dir Nick Broomfield, Pro Marc Hoeferlin, Screenplay Nick Broomfield, Barney Broomfield and Marc Hoeferlin, Ph Barney Broomfield, Ed Joe Bini and Marc Hoeferlin, Music H. Scott Salinas. 


South Central Films-Sky Vision.
110 mins. UK/USA. 2014. Rel: 30 January 2015. Cert. 15.