On HBO's Tales of the Grim Sleeper, a documentary directed by Nick Broomfield
“The police don’t care because these are Black women.”
Thirty minutes into documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s latest film, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, we hear these words uttered by Pam, one of the film’s most compelling figures, as she and Bloomfield are driving down the streets of South Central Los Angeles. The documentary follows the case of a South Central serial killer dubbed the Grim Sleeper by the media due to the belief that the killer waited 14 years between murders. Pam is a former sex worker who had multiple dealings with Lonnie Franklin Jr, the man arrested and charged with 10 counts of murder, and one charge of attempted murder. Franklin is believed to be the Grim Sleeper and responsible for the murders of over 100 women and girls (victims’ ages ranged between 14 and 36) in South Central between 1985 and 2010. In the scene preceding Pam’s comment, Broomfield is conversing with Margaret Prescod, founder of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders and Laverne Peters, the mother of one of the victims, Janecia Peters. The Coalition has been advocating for justice on behalf of the victims since the 1980s. Earlier in the film when we’re first introduced to her, we see footage showing a younger Prescod handing out leaflets outside of a grocery store as she talks to patrons about the murders of young women that, at the time, have been happening for three years.
In her present-day conversation with Bloomfield, Prescod tells him that the police knew that at least 12 women had already been killed before they released any information about the murders, and when the Coalition raised its concerns regarding this, authorities responded with "he’s only killing hookers." These two conversations, juxtaposed, hold the answer to the film’s central question: how could over 100 women disappear over 25 years with virtually nobody hearing about it? The answer is this: because these women were Black; because they were poor; because some were sex workers; because some were drug addicts; because they were expendable. Asked for comment, the LAPD chose to decline. However, the film is as much an indictment of a police force that failed to notify a community of a violent predator in its midst as it is of a society that allowed a number of oppressive factors (racism, dying industries, unemployment, poverty and a crack cocaine epidemic) to work together to let the killings of hundreds of young black women go unreported and unnoticed –Prescod mentions that when canvassing Franklin’s neighborhood, his own neighbors were unaware that murders were even occurring. “Imagine if they would have treated victim #3 as if she was a student over at UCLA with blond hair and blue eyes, how many other people might still be living,” says Nana Gyamfi, another of the films truth-tellers and a member of the Coalition. Their class, race and gender meant that the lives and deaths of the Sleeper’s victims weren't viewed as worthy of consideration.
Throughout the rest of the documentary Bloomfield sets off on a mission to speak with people who knew Franklin. We hear from sex workers, current and former; drug addicts, current and former; friends of Franklin who struggle with the possibility of his guilt; and even Franklin’s son, who seems reluctant to engage at first but eventually agrees to talk to Bloomfield. The film shows us the world in which Franklin slunk around and operated, under the cover of night. We hear tales of Franklin and his friends trading pictures of naked women as they would baseball cards. Twice we hear him described as a “nice guy” by two separate men, while many of the documentary’s other participants describe him as someone who was known to hate, abuse and torture women. One of the men who describes him as a nice guy, seconds later says Franklin hated women, especially drug addicts – but only because his ex-wife, a drug addict, made him that way. Lastly, we hear from women who crossed paths with Franklin and who share their tales of survival. One of these women is Pam, whom Bloomfield engages to take the film crew around the neighborhood in search of women who knew or had come across Franklin. Pam’s presence on screen is undeniably vibrant and she proves indispensable in getting the film crew (made up of white men) access to the neighborhood that would likely have been impossible had she not been present.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper comes at a time when Black people are taking to the streets in protest of police violence in cities across the United States and #BlackLivesMatter has become firmly entrenched in conversations regarding this issue. Black women have been an integral part of organizing, supporting and leading these conversations and yet recognition of the victimization and killing of Black women themselves is often pushed to the margins. Acknowledgment and action around the brutalization and murders of trans, queer and disabled Black women is pushed aside even further.
While state-sanctioned violence is a legitimate and persistent threat, the sad fact is that Black women go missing all the time and are abused and murdered at alarming rates, and although Tales of the Grim Sleeper is made by a white man, it does ask the right questions about whose lives matter and whose lives are given more value in society. The answers lie in the fact that it took a white man making this film for this story to be told on an HBO scale. Although the film is not about police brutality, it does successfully highlight the kind of systemic violence that allowed a serial killer to move freely in a Black community for 25 years, because its members were so marginalized as to not be considered worthy of notification of his presence among them, and because this same marginalization meant that any community members with information regarding the murders would be unlikely to report it to police.
When Lonnie Franklin Jr. was arrested, authorities found pictures of 180 women in his house. We met some of the women in this documentary. Some of the 180 have been confirmed dead and some are still missing. The film ends with a montage of pictures of some of these 180 women; a haunting tableau of lives lost to multiple levels of violence, but there are countless women whose faces we may never see and whose names we may never know. This film is about one specific community in South Central LA, but the negligence and systemic violence that may have cost so many of these Black women their lives is found in numerous other communities as well. “Yeah, I was out there. That doesn’t mean I’m nothing. Like I’m a piece of trash,” says one of the women who survived her encounter with Franklin to the camera, as she tears up. Be they sex workers, drug addicts or homeless, Black women’s lives should be valued, they should matter, and they do matter.