Discovery Process is an ongoing series taking a second look at true-crime-related films currently available on streaming services.
Overview: Filmmaker Nick Broomfield travels to South Central Los Angeles to talk to the family, friends, and survivors of the serial killer known as the Grim Sleeper. HBO; 2014; TV-MA; 110 minutes.
Hidden in Plain Sight: In one of the many wrenching moments in Nick Broomfield’s 2014 documentary about the crimes of Lonnie Franklin Jr., Enietra Washington recounts the afternoon she accepted a ride from a friendly-seeming man in her neighborhood. Their car had barely turned the corner when, without provocation, Franklin shot her in the chest. Somehow, Washington escaped and became the only “official” surviving victim of the man now known as the Grim Sleeper. In the aftermath she was able to describe Franklin’s car (a distinctive orange Pinto) and guide police to his street, pointing out what she believed was the house Franklin had taken her to. It turns out she was wrong—Franklin’s house was two doors down. This was 1988. At that point, he’d already been killing women—Black women, sex workers, those who lived on the margins—for years. The Los Angeles Police Department wouldn’t catch him until 2010, and then almost by accident. It is presumed that during those intervening years that Franklin kept on killing. But Tales of the Grim Sleeper isn’t solely the story of police incompetence (though this is acknowledged), it’s also a sublime and complicated look at the people who were part of Franklin’s everyday existence, as well as a snapshot of life in South Central.
What’s Wrong with this Picture: I moved to Los Angeles in 2010, and remember the first confusing months after Franklin’s arrest. Why, I wondered, had I’d never even heard of this serial killer? I figured it must be an L.A. thing I just didn’t yet know. Instead, it turned out that I wasn’t alone. Much of Broomfield’s story centers on the pernicious invisibility of this case, and of its victims. Many of Franklin’s neighbors didn’t even know there was a serial killer working their streets, much less one living on their block. My most vivid memory of the case is seeing the big yellow billboards around town, filled with pictures of unaccounted-for women. Some of the photos showed smiling women, others scared women, and others—most disconcertingly—showed women who were either asleep or dead. Franklin was an amateur photographer and a trove of photos had been found following his arrest. He’s since been convicted of murdering ten, yet hundreds of women were pictured. Could there be hundreds of victims?
Unfiltered Access: I don’t mean to give the impression this film is investigatory in nature. There’s no accounting for Franklin’s crimes, nor is much time spent attempting to understand why he committed them. Instead, Broomfield receives a remarkable degree of access to the people who knew Franklin best, including neighbors, friends of the family, and even sex workers who’d had ongoing client relationships with him for years. The baffling near-consensus? Not a bad guy, all in all. In Broomfield’s hands, the banality of evil, as well as the proximity to it, make for fascinating study. And that study is reverent. There are few of the teeth-gnashing Isn’t-This-Awkward moments that many documentarians have become too reliant on in recent years. Yes, Broomfield here is out of his element, but by not taking advantage of the ample opportunities to insert himself into this story, he creates an immersive viewing experience—one that defiantly refuses to other its subjects. In fact, the closest Broomfield (so inconspicuous here I can only recall two instances of seeing his face) comes to editorializing is in visual form—through lingering, beautifully lit shots of each interviewee that verge on candid portraiture for a few tantalizing seconds before their subjects begin speaking.
That respect appears to be mutual; I was often surprised by the degree of candor Broomfield was able to elicit, which I suspect speaks to the trust he was able to establish. In fact, many of the best moments are when Pam Brooks, a former addict and sex worker, essentially takes over Broomfield’s shoot—offering to connect him with the people on the street who knew Franklin best. Her frank interviewing style mixed with an earnest affection for the people with whom she’s talking serve as direct portals to the access Broomfield needed in order to make a truly great documentary. Remember those women on the billboard? Pam finds several of them during the shoot, alive and, for the most part, well. In this small way, in this brief amount of time, she does more with the few clues she’s followed versus what meager progress the LAPD made with evidence they were essentially handed.
Overall: I put off watching this film for too long, assuming it was sensational or ghoulish. Instead, I saw a film that got out of its own way, allowing the real human stories to come to the fore. Rather than “a movie about a serial killer,” Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a masterclass in resourcefulness and a meditation on resilience.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper is available for streaming on HBO GO.
Featured Image: HBO