Tales of the Grim Sleeper – 5 stars

Nick Broomfield’s (Kurt and Courtney, Battle for Haditha) documentary for HBO is a must-see for several reasons. First and foremost, I had no idea we had a modern serial killer of historical proportions in South Central Los Angeles, a killer of dozens and possibly over a hundred women over a 20 year period beginning in the 1980s. That, of course, is a large point of the story. Broomfield does an effective job of demonstrating that the dispossession of the citizens in that part of LA, coupled with the carnage occurring with the rise of crack cocaine, rendered the murders and disappearances of “crack whores” a rather low priority. After all, a majority of the women killed by local stolen car fixer and semi-strong man Lonnie David Franklin were likely lured to their deaths by the offer of drugs-for-sex, most meeting their ignominious ends in a camper parked at the back of his house.  I couldn’t shake wondering as to the numbers Jack the Ripper could have amassed if he’d kept to his Spitalfields hunting grounds and refrained from corresponding with the police.

The documentary is less an indictment of the police and government officials, who, when in “no comment” mode, always seem guiltier, than a singularly brave exploration of the urban condition in a rotted corner of the city. Broomfield, a Brit, is one of at least two white men poking their cameras in an area where white men generally fear to tread, and his endeavor results in incredibly revelatory footage. Franklin’s pals at first proclaim his innocence (he was set up by the cops, they swear), but as Broomfield spends more time with them, two open up, explaining that Franklin was indeed a suspicious character and that they were even involved in his kinks, so much so that they traded pictures of the naked street girls they photographed, almost as if in a local snapshot club. They were happy to party with the man, even if he was a brutal beast who preyed upon the addictions of so many street walkers. In this, Broomfield reveals that the neighborhood itself could be as blasé’ about the women as the authorities.  But he also captures the pain and regret of one friend, for whom the “hey, I didn’t know he was killing them after I left” explanation no longer fully suffices.

Broomfield also hits documentarian gold when he hooks up with a former crack addict/prostitute – Pam – who shepherds him through the dangerous streets, always introducing the crew to the locals as her “friends from England.” Her efforts actually lead the crew to women deemed “missing” by the LAPD after Franklin’s arrest (Franklin’s penchant for photography resulted in a 200+ picture sheet):

Pam’s tour of the neighborhood shows the depths of its depravity at its worst, but she has survived, now clean and out of the game, and there is fundamental decency about her, though encased in the hardest of shells, that is riveting.

Franklin goes to trial this summer.  Definitely catch this before you start reading about the case.

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