A fascinatingly disturbing true-crime documentary, Tales of the Grim Sleeper isn’t just about a serial killer, but a film about race and class and the value — or lack of it — that society places on certain women.
On its surface, Tales of the Grim Sleeper is about a series of killings — at least 10, maybe more — committed in Los Angeles between 1985 and 2007. It took decades for the police to apprehend Lonnie Franklin for the murders of these women, some of them prostitutes, many of them with drug habits. (“Imagine if they would have treated ‘victim No. 3’ as if she was a student over at UCLA with blonde hair and blue eyes,” notes one woman interviewed in the film.) The details of his predatory sexual preferences are startling, and although Franklin remains in jail without trial since his arrest, his guilt here is assumed.
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) had little access to the police, so he hit the streets of South Central L.A., interviewing Franklin’s neighbors. The Grim Sleeper is grim in more ways than one. The grinding poverty and violence experienced by the people Broomfield interviews — some of whom end up becoming sources for him in his search for details about Franklin’s methods and motives — is dismaying.
Viewers may find Broomfield’s on-camera presence intrusive, but some documentaries lend themselves to a strong narrative voice, and Tales of the Grim Sleeper is one of them. It also helps enormously that one of the South Central residents, Pam Brooks, who guides the British Broomfield down L.A.’s mean streets, is a wonderful addition to the proceedings: intelligent and chatty, informative and tough. It’s safe to say this film would have been something completely different — and much the poorer for it — had Brooks not agreed to help Broomfield out. A woman who could very well have become a victim of Franklin’s herself, Brooks is a vital witness to the destruction of so many female lives around her.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper airs Monday, April 27 at 9 p.m. on HBO.