Pam Brooks guides filmmaker Nick Broomfield around her LA neighborhood in Tales of the Grim Sleeper.
The chilling new documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper makes it clear that our society values the lives of white people differently than Black people.
At the beginning of director Nick Broomfield’s new documentary, the audience sees a Google Map of Lonnie Franklin Jr.’s home in South Central Los Angeles. In 2010, Franklin was arrested and charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder—he heads to trial this June. Many say, however, that Franklin killed more than 100 women in the 25 years since 1985. All of his alleged victims were Black. “How did this happen?” Broomfield asks in voice-over.
How could it happen? Later in the film, Pamela Brooks, a resident of the neighborhood and a former sex worker supplies the answer: “We don’t mean nothing to them. It’s Black women. I’m a Black woman. Who gives a fuck about me?” Brooks offers comic relief at times and hard, tragic truths at other times. She evaded Franklin’s attempts to lure her in one night. He would often pick up sex workers in the middle of the night—promising them crack—and then take them to his home to photograph them, assault them, and often kill them. The numerous cases that Franklin was allegedly involved in are referred to by police as “NHI” cases: “No Humans Involved”—as if killing a Black woman (especially a sex worker or drug addict) doesn’t involve a human.
Broomfield has worked on numerous intimate, low-budget films before, including documentaries about Sarah Palin, Tupac, and military killings of civilians in Iraq. In Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Broomfield could have easily constructed a film in which his authoritative voice drove a persuasive narrative. Instead, he allows the people—Franklin’s friends, victims, and neighborhood residents who fought for justice—to dominate the screen. Brooks’ knowledge and connections specifically give him access to the world that he, as a white British man, is not a part of.
Lonnie Franklin’s booking photo, as seen in Tales of the Grim Sleeper.
These same voices weren’t heard or listened to in the various investigations conducted by the LAPD in the 1980s. The film tells the story of Enietra Washington, Franklin’s only known survivor. In 1988, after Franklin picked her up and attempted to kill her, she gave the police a description of Franklin’s car (an orange Pinto) and described his face to a sketch artist. The sketch was never released and neither were details about his car. While Franklin was “hunting” women and killing them, the police didn’t even tell the public that the killings were the work of a serial murderer. Washington explains the role of racism in the police handling of the case. “Every Black woman is a hooker, don’t you know?” she says with a flippant resignation, explaining why the information wasn’t deemed relevant. It was 20 years before the public was shown the sketch and given details about the suspected serial killer.
To combat that lax institutional attitude, a neighborhood group called the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders formed in the 1980s to attempt to get more media and law enforcement attention on the crimes. One of the most powerful voices in Tales of the Grim Sleeper is Margaret Prescod, a leader of the Coalition. She deserves her own documentary and she makes delivers many of the most powerful truths in the film. “We’re here to say, loud and clear, that every life is of value. Could you imagine if these murders had happened in Beverly Hills?” she asks.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper airs on HBO on April 27, but I first saw it at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo. After the film, both Broomfield and Brooks took the stage. Brooks received wild applause, which intensified after she said that she was still clean and sober. She commented on the institutional cycle that allowed the murders to continue for so long. Broomfield added that the issues presented in the documentary and the issues that were unveiled in Ferguson are national issues, revealing “systematic institutional racism.”
While watching Tales of the Grim Sleeper, I couldn’t stop thinking about 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, a film by Sarah Burns, Ken Burns, and David McMahon that tells the story of the five men wrongfully convicted for raping and beating a jogger in Central Park in 1989. The jogger was a young, white woman who worked as an investment banker. The crime made national news—that year, Donald Trump took out full-page ads in New York newspapers demanding the return of the death penalty for “criminals of every age.” Four Black men and one Hispanic man were convicted of the crime. In 2002—after the young men had served years of prison time—a serial rapist admitted to the rape and DNA tests corroborated his confession. In contrast to their trials, the vacating of the five young men’s convictions was quiet.
The New York Daily News front page reporting on the 1989 beating. Via PBS.
Pairing these films creates a powerful narrative that reveals something about whose lives matter in our society. Contrasting every part of these cases—both of which originated in the 1980s, but have been working through the police and justice system for 20 years—shows how law enforcement and media help shape the narrative that Black lives matter less. Certainly more people know about the Central Park Jogger than they do about the dozens of women in South Central Los Angeles who were beaten, raped, strangled, and shot. These women, it would seem, are disposable. And more people know about the “Central Park Five”—Kharey “Korey” Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana—being convicted, rather than their innocence.
While the films chronicle events that happen on the opposite sides of America, the strength in both of the films is that people are allowed to speak for themselves and we are held responsible as not-so-innocent bystanders. At the end of Tales of the Grim Sleeper, photos of Black women—Franklin’s victims—flash by on the screen, just slowly enough that we feel properly uncomfortable and ashamed of the society we live in.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2012, Central Park Five co-director Sarah Burns said of her film, “Part of our goal is simply to inform people about what happened in this case. But we also want people to think about how this happened.”
Broomfield clearly attempts—and succeeds—to reach that same goal in Tales of the Grim Sleeper. He asks at the beginning of the film, “How did this happen?” The answer is much greater than Los Angeles—the answer stretches from Los Angeles, to Ferguson, to New York City. It’s America’s problem.
Leigh Kolb is an English and media instructor at a community college in rural Missouri. She writes for Bitch Flicks, and her work has appeared at Vulture, xoJane, Women and Hollywood, and Shadow and Act. Follow her on Twitter @leighkolb.