July 6, 2019

Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014)
Grade: 52/100

Director: Nick Broomfield
Stars: Lonnie Franklin, Nick Broomfield, Margaret Prescod

What it's about. An HBO documentary on Lonnie Franklin, a serial killer of black female prostitutes in Los Angeles. Veteran documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield serves as producer, director, and writer.

Between 1985 and his 2010 arrest, Franklin killed at least ten people, and possibly more than a hundred. Franklin, who had a lengthy criminal history, was a sadist who enjoyed humiliating and photographing the prostitutes he employed. During all of this time, Franklin was married to a respectable woman, though they apparently principally lived apart.

How others will see it. Tales of the Grim Sleeper was shown at various film festivals, where it received a smattering of award nominations. Its HBO television debut came about eight months later, in April 2015. Despite its lurid subject matter, the film has only 2400 user votes at imdb.com. The user ratings are consistent across all demographics, and average 7.0 out of 10.

The user reviews are generally positive, but at least one contributor suspects that Broomfield paid Franklin's acquiantances to talk, which would make their veracity doubtful. The contributor, Seth_Rogue_One, notes that some of the people "change their story" concerning Franklin as the documentary progresses.

No one, it seems, comments on the societal and economic forces that lead to addicted young black women walking the streets, setting them up to be victimized by any sociopathic John Doe.

How I felt about it. It is unknown how many people were murdered by Lonnie Franklin. The present film states "hundreds" as if it was fact, as if every unsolved killing of a black streetwalker in Los Angeles could be blamed on Franklin. Wikipedia lists twelve victims, one of whom, Margette Washington, survived being shot and dumped out of a vehicle by Franklin.

Sometimes, questions arise that are of much greater importance than, how good is the film. The most obvious question is, how did Franklin get away with killing people for more than 20 years? It is true there is a gap between 1988 and 2002 without murders, but it is presumed that Franklin used his job as a dump worker to conceal bodies in landfills.

The answer is similar to that for John Wayne Gacy, who killed at least 33 murders. Both killers targeted streetwalkers, whose sudden absence would not lead to large-scale manhunts, which would have been the case if, for example, the victims were attractive female college students from upper income families.

Franklin, as a trader of stolen cars, had the income to solicit prostitutes. He lived in a poor neighborhood, where numerous women were unemployed, addicted to drugs, and compelled to work the streets to eke out an existence. Franklin merely had to bribe them into his van, where he could murder them in private and dump the bodies wherever he chose. The victims had little chance against Franklin, a large, powerful man.

Thus, Franklin was another Jack the Ripper, invulnerable to the indifferent efforts of the Los Angeles Police Department, until technological progress proved his undoing. DNA databases of those charged with crimes included Franklin's only son. The son's DNA was a familial match to DNA taken from cold case murders.

This made Lonnie Franklin suddenly the primary suspect in the decades-long Grim Sleeper case. His DNA was secured unsuspectedly at a pizza buffet. He was arrested, and his handgun was a match for slugs taken from victims. Franklin was held without bail and, after years of delay, was convicted and sentenced to death. Since California has not executed anyone on death row since 2006, it is probable that Franklin will instead die a natural death in prison.

So, how good is the movie? One obvious problem is that documentary filmmakers are the opposite of children: they should be heard and not seen. There are too many scenes of Broomfield driving around the streets of Franklin's neighborhood with any acquaintance of Franklin friendly enough to give Franklin the time of day. Franklin, a gregarious British white man, was regarded with suspicion by Franklin's community.

But we do have several interesting interviews with former prostitutes who had been accosted by Franklin, and with male friends of Franklin, one of whom had even joined him in his activities with prostitutes. There are also interviews of longtime community activist Margaret Prescod, and even Franklin's grown son, who spent time in the same prison as his father.

Overall, it is a good effort by filmmaker Nick Broomfield, and an insight into the problems faced by disadvantaged urban minority neighborhoods.