In Tales of the Grim Sleeper, British director Nick Broomfield (pictured, left) returns to Los Angeles and teams up with an unflappable former prostitute to investigate the case of a serial killer in the city’s South Central neighborhood.
Ask someone in the U.S. if they’ve heard of the Grim Sleeper serial killer, and their response will most likely be a blank look.
The Grim Sleeper in question is a serial killer thought to have been active in South Central Los Angeles between 1985 and 2007, but community activists believe the perpetrator is responsible for the shooting and strangling deaths of upwards of 100 women, many of whom were prostitutes and drug addicts.
Despite the horrific scope of the case, the Grim Sleeper is not a household name. The attacker reportedly took a 14-year hiatus from the killing spree – hence the ‘Sleeper’ nickname – but Nick Broomfield’s latest documentary calls that fact, and several others, into question.
On July 7, 2010, Los Angeles police arrested suspect Lonnie David Franklin Jr., an former mechanic and married father of two, and charged him with 10 counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and special circumstance allegations of multiple murders in the Grim Sleeper case. Franklin was apprehended after investigators matched a DNA sample from a slice of pizza to semen and saliva found on the victims. He has maintained his innocence and remains in jail, pending a trial.
In Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) over the weekend, Broomfield accuses the LAPD of sitting on evidence and bungling the case. The victims were black residents of impoverished South Central and although police had a description and DNA on file, the families of the dead and missing were not told of a serial killer in their midst until LA Weekly published an exposé in 2008.
“This would never have happened if this had been a couple of USC students. There would’ve been a whole different approach,” Broomfield tells realscreen over the phone from Sussex, England, prior to TIFF. “It’s a portrait of a non-police action story, of a police force who weren’t interested and had given up on the community, and a community that had given up on them.”
Two years ago, Broomfield traveled to Los Angeles, where he used to live and shot several documentaries including Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, and set up a production office in Leimert Park staffed with a small team of producers, researchers and editors, as well as Broomfield’s son Barney, who filled in after the original DP became so uncomfortable working South Central that he quit.
“This guy was an amazing cameraman and he wanted to get the Alexa camera, which is an enormous camera. He was an ex-Wimbledon tennis player so he was more than capable of carrying it,” says Broomfield. “Barney is a bit smaller but he did an amazing job. And people love Barney – he’s a very charming guy.”
LAPD reps declined to be interviewed for the film, so Broomfield teamed up with the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders and Pam Brooks (pictured above, right), a resourceful and wise-cracking, self-professed former prostitute, who became his fixer in South Central. Together, they track down Franklin’s friends and associates, as well as several women who have harrowing tales to tell but have never spoken to police.
The film is paced like a detective thriller, as Broomfield and Brooks cruise around the community asking prostitutes on the street to stop and talk. They attempt to make contact with Franklin’s son, who they are told has a violent temper, and visit a drug den late at night in search the suspect’s former babysitter.
The resulting doc – the first to be commissioned for Sky Atlantic’s ‘Footprints’ strand – is a portrait of community cut off from mainstream society. Its look at the emotional toll of poverty, systemic racism and police relations with black communities should make Grim Sleeper timely in the wake of the Ferguson protests this summer.
As Broomfield says in his narration, “this is not just a story about Lonnie, but about people in one of the world’s most prosperous cities who have been left behind.”
What was it like returning to Los Angeles after having lived there for so many years?
I got to see a side of the city that I hadn’t really seen before, and I met a number of people who I was surprised how much I liked and was charmed by, in a part of the city that has a reputation for being so rough and so difficult. I found more beauty in making this film than I have in so many others, although the subject was a serial killer. I found a number of the people quite remarkable – people like Pam who had such a sense of humor and a spirit that could survive anything. I found that incredible.
In the movie you go from funny moments with Pam to horrific stories that some of the women tell to the camera. What was the challenge in getting that beauty you mention across to viewers, given the nature of the material?
A lot of the surviving of that world is a great sense of humor. There’s an honesty there that you probably don’t get in the more affluent, bullshit-y areas of the city. For a lot of the survivors, this is the first opportunity they’d ever had to really tell their story and they wanted to tell their story to people they believed really wanted to hear it. I found them more than capable of telling their story in a really articulate way.
There was a kind of simplicity and immediacy in the way a lot of people there talked. That surprised me. They were so not full of bullshit even though the details of the killings were so grim. Of course the most disturbing part of it all was the authorities had given up on that area and really didn’t care, which was a very grim realization. Nonetheless there’s a spirit in South Central and survivors like Pam who make it all worthwhile.
When you started, did you have sense the film would be a portrait of South Central rather than a film about a serial killer trial?
The guy still has not come to trial and I was interested in whether he was guilty or whether he wasn’t guilty. A number of his friends at the beginning were insinuating that he was innocent. They thought he was good guy. He was a pillar of the community. He was an excellent grandfather and their attitude was like, if you are such a caring person and always helping people, how is it possible that you could also be a mass killer? That was the story I was getting.
And then we went deeper and deeper. In a way, we were forced to go deeper into the community because the police themselves – who I expected to be cooperative given the enormous press conference at the time of his arrest – were absolutely adamant that they weren’t going to talk at all. Whereas they wanted to celebrate the arrest of this guy, they didn’t want there to be any inquiry on the part of the press as to how it was possible for this to have gone on for 25 years. This guy could’ve killed more than 100 people. It just seemed a most incredible situation.
How aggressively did you pursue an interview with the police?
We were pretty aggressive. We tried very hard. The number of phone calls I did and different approaches – I wouldn’t say I was a pest but I certainly tried every reasonable approach including talking to friends of mine who’d made films with the LAPD before and had relationships with particular policemen. I exhausted all possibilities.
Do you hope this film will have an impact on the case or the trial?
I hope that it has an impact on the way in which that community is perceived and treated by the authorities in Los Angeles, in terms of the respect I feel the people deserve and the kind of service they should be getting from the authorities which they are not getting. There were women who were completely unaware of the danger that they were in, who were literally being stalked and attacked in the middle of their community and they had no idea that there was a mass killer on the loose because they hadn’t been informed of that. That’s an incredible state of affairs.
Can you talk about landing the interviews? As a white man going into a world of black female prostitutes, were there obstacles?
The thing I’ve learned doing these films is that you go in with somebody who has the respect of the community. I think that’s why Pam was so crucial in that she knew so many of the women. She didn’t put up with any bullshit and she smoothed our way in. It was quite funny when she would say “these are my friends from England.” I never felt greatly in danger. Obviously we did get caught in the crossfire a couple of times but they weren’t shooting at us, which is a reassuring thought.
We carried on doing the editing process in Los Angeles and we were very accepted in the community. We had good friendships with a number of the people there who would often hang out with us when we weren’t filming them. That was what enabled us to make the film.
How do you feel about bringing this film to TIFF? The last time you were in Toronto with Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, you got quite the drubbing from critics.
[laughs] Sometimes you just choose a doomed story and that was a doomed story. It was a has-been story. You know, it’s a bit of the luck of the draw and that was clearly not a lot of luck. This is a very strong film, which I have great confidence in, and I think it’s because we got right into the meat of the story and it’s a very passionate story, and we see something that we haven’t seen before.
The Sarah Palin story had so much coverage. We were saturated with Sarah Palin and the film didn’t really bring up anything incredibly new. That was a painful experience. I feel completely the opposite about this one.
- Tales of the Grim Sleeper screens in Toronto on Sunday (September 14) at 6 p.m. EST at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
- Check out the trailer for the film below: