Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
“When you make these films you need to work very closely with people from the community. You’re only as good as your relationship with them.”
Over the course of twenty-five years, Lonnie Franklin may have murdered upward of one hundred women. Named as a suspect in the “Grim Sleeper” murders of South Central Los Angeles, he wasn’t arrested until 2010. Further, this arrest happened almost by accident, and only when a computer’s DNA match linked him to a possible twenty victims. Police put no effort into the case because the women being killed were poor, black, and mostly prostitutes. Had this happened in Beverly Hills, it would have probably made national news.
An official selection of the 2014 Telluride, Toronto, and New York film festivals, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper explores the impoverished neighborhood where these murders took place. Broomfield—director of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2013)—is accompanied by his son and director of photography—Barney Broomfield—as he befriends men and women living in this community and attempts to reveal how these killings went unsolved for so long. Along the way, Broomfield exposes the prejudice and injustice that led police to flat-out ignore the cases (the LAPD refused to comment for the film). Police were even alleged to have used a slang term, NHI (no human involved), when a victim was a prostitute, drug addict, or gang member.
As Broomfield charges through the neglected LA neighborhood, he interviews those who knew Lonnie Franklin personally, including both his close friends and victims. In the tight-knit community, many are loathe to believe the well-liked Lonnie could have perpetrated such violence without their knowledge. But, as evidence mounts against him, everyone is forced to reconsider his involvement in dark deeds. The film reaches an emotional climax when Broomfield confronts Lonnie’s son Chris, then speaks with individual women who were actually assaulted by Lonnie, but escaped.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Did you have an objective in making this film? Were you trying to collect evidence to present, or even solve the case?
Nick Broomfield I think my starting point was that I’ve lived in Los Angeles quite a long time and have always been amazed at what a divided city it is—between incredible wealth and a large part that is completely disenfranchised, with nothing, and without political influence, just neglected and forgotten. I read about this and thought, This is an amazing case, and it’s a case that has directly to do with this particular problem. I wanted to find out how that community existed and survived. So, in a way, I kind of used the case—I think it’s a fascinating case—but was more interested in this community that had put up with all these murders for so long, and been so neglected, and clearly it wasn’t a priority for the police. What I did in the film—and we were filming over the course of a year and a half—was something the police should have been able to do in a matter of weeks. It’s amazing to me that they hadn’t spoken to these people. Of course, I think it reflects a bigger problem. And I don’t think it’s just Los Angeles. It’s in Chicago, New York, Ferguson …. It reflects a political situation. I don’t think you can point to Bernard Parks, who is the ex-police chief, and say, “It’s your fault.” They reflect a bigger issue.
AJG You don’t set interviews up; you kind of just barge in, or show up, like guerilla-style filmmaking. You seem very involved, and you’re always on camera being personable, unassuming, and talking to people. How do you earn the trust of so many people and get them to reveal themselves to you?
NB A lot of it is how you go into the community initially. I spent quite a lot of time finding the right person to go with. That’s one of the most important things. I managed to find someone who had grown up on the street next to Lonnie Franklin, someone called Tiffany Hadish, who doesn’t appear in the film, but is very well-known locally as a sort of comedian. She’s just recently been on TV. She’s going to be very successful; she’s kind of brilliant, and a success story for the community.
AJG How did you meet her?
NB Funny enough, I was renting my house, and a couple of her friends were renting from me. I mentioned to them that I was doing this film, and they said, “Oh, we know the very person.” So, I met her, and she was just the real thing—fantastic. That first day, when we go in and meet the three stooges on the street, and everyone is shouting at us, Tiffany was with us, and she was on the charm offensive and managing to quiet everything down. They all knew who Tiffany was, so she calmed them. And then we met Pam, who sort of took over after her. Tiffany was in this show with Kevin Hart. Her career was taking off, so she was less and less available. So, Pam took over. When you make these films you need to work very closely with people from the community. You’re only as good as your relationship with them. And we all liked hanging out. Pam had a really special relationship with Barney, my son. They both play backgammon, so they get into these ferociously competitive games. There’s a genuine friendship there.
AJG The people in this film are so charismatic and amazing to watch. They’re not self-conscious on camera at all.
NB Yeah! They’re amazing. Partly because the LAPD was so uncooperative, but, more than anything, I always felt this film was their opportunity to tell their story. That’s very much what the film does.
AJG Pam has a credit as executive producer. What was it like working with her? She almost takes over.
NB Pam was really our guide. She got the interview with Chris, and she found those women. She was key. You would think, obviously, the police could have done the same thing rather easily. The community is very divided between men and women. I think the crack epidemic has done that. It tore everything apart—and this epidemic is still going on. For example, Lonnie’s male friends found us men who had been close to him. Pam found the women. Part of the problem, too, is there’s been no attempt to treat the crack epidemic as an epidemic. It’s treated as an individual problem—like saying, “you shouldn’t be on crack”—which is why it’s really made no headway. There’s been an epidemic for such a long time, since the early 1980s.
AJG Someone says, “Well, they’re just hookers, who cares if they’re addicted to drugs or being murdered?”
NB The community has been left to destroy itself.
AJG While you were gathering the story, did you think Lonnie was guilty? Did your opinion keep changing, or were you neutral?
NB I was pretty neutral. I was probably more interested in this question: How is it possible for twenty-five years? Surely, somebody knew something? Then you realize this is a community that has been abandoned. And part of its abandonment is that it no longer relates to the police—there’s no trust, completely understandably. And, even though Lonnie was a very weird guy, I guess, if you’re living in a crack community, a lot of weird things happen. You just get used to it.
AJG As the film progresses, more and more evidence builds against Lonnie—especially the women you find at the end, those who have actually survived violent encounters with him. Is there any question, for you, as regards his guilt at this point?
NB I don’t think, from talking to his lawyers in depth, that they actually have any hope he’s been wrongfully arrested. I think they’re just trying to get him off the death penalty. The DNA evidence seems to be so conclusive.
AJG Some of the interviews you conduct are pretty dangerous. You go into areas where you could be shot at, where community members don’t trust strangers or white people. Did you take any safety precautions? Especially when you interviewed Chris, did you check him for a gun, as he’s been known to carry one?
NB No, we didn’t check Chris. I think the reality is that violence is normally directed at gangsters or people within the community. I can’t think of a white camera crew that’s been shot at. I guess that’s part of privilege. Maybe you might lose your equipment or something, but no one’s going to kill you. I always felt very safe there. Also, people there are not great shots. If someone’s shooting, it’s more likely you’ll get shot by a stray bullet, which is why I wasn’t going to start running. I think a lot of it is just panic shooting.
AJG But with Lonnie’s friend Richard, when he got beaten up by Chris, he thought Chris might come after you.
NB Yeah, but there was a local dispute between them, having to do with something else. It was another story. Richard’s son was serving a twenty-two year sentence, which Richard blames Lonnie for. These families have not made peace.
AJG Yet Richard still thinks of Lonnie as his good friend.
NB Yeah. I think within these communities there’s day-to-day friendship, and then there’s grudges.
AJG When Lonnie’s best friends talk about him, it’s both touching and sad how they begin to question who their friend was or is. Do you think they changed their minds as filming progressed? Gary comes to you at one point, saying, “I was thinking more about some stuff …”
NB Gary was slightly tormented by it. I think he is actually a pretty decent guy, and he’s loyal to Lonnie. It troubled him, deeply, that Lonnie could have done these things, particularly because he and Lonnie would both take photographs of women. But Gary probably comes from a very different place. I think he rather likes women; I don’t think he, in any way, hates women. He couldn’t reconcile the killings with his friend. It deeply disturbed him that he’d been so close to it.
AJG What was Richard’s incentive in helping you with the film? Did he want to prove that Lonnie was innocent, or did his friends just want to know the truth?
NB That’s certainly true for Gary—he was the first to come to us, then he brought Richard. And Richard was much more worried about what people in the community would think of him if he was seen taking part in the film. Not being a snitch is such an important part of the community. And the longer you spend in there, the closer you come to people. At a certain point, they decide you’re all right; they like hanging out with you, shooting the shit with you. We’d take Richard or Gary out to lunch. We had an office—or rather, a fortified bunker—quite near South Central. They would just come over and hang out. Inevitably, then, you start talking more honestly about what’s going on. And it was quite a shock when they literally walked in one day and said, “We’ve got these photographs. Do you want to see them?”
AJG I’m surprised they were willing to present those photographs, which were kind of damning.
NB It was quite surprising. And then they put us in touch with the guy who burned the cars for Lonnie.
AJG The one who said he saw blood in the backseats of the cars.
NB Yeah, that implicated him. I think all these guys have just seen so much.
AJG They’re used to seeing these crazy things happen.
NB I do think they thought it was an opportunity to put their point of view out there. They all feel they don’t have a chance in their community. They can’t get work. They’ve all got drug convictions of one kind or another. They can’t get public housing. They can’t get out of it. It’s like exiling people and making them nonhuman. Their options, their ability to be part of society, are gone.
And, in many places, they can’t vote. (I think they lose the ability in California for at least seven years.) It represents a political attitude. When you lose the vote, you sort of become a nonperson. Politicians don’t take you into account, so you don’t have a voice. It’s like in Ferguson—the police do not represent the community. That’s how these situations occur. There needs to be a fundamental reorganization and different attitude, on a kind of local government level, of how you treat communities who are from the poorer end of society, and not marginalize them.
This is, obviously, not just in Los Angeles—it’s a broad sweep. Until the late 1970s, there were in-roads being made in terms of setting up start-up programs to teach people, to try and get them jobs. There were medical clinics you could go to. There were a lot of programs, if you wanted to take advantage and make things better. There’s really nothing anymore. No money is coming in. This is a cry for these communities to be properly targeted and funded. 50% of people in this community haven’t completed high school. There’s a problem. You need to get some programs in there that will get them to a point where they can get some decent jobs. Otherwise, you’ve just created this enormous, on-going problem that is not going to go away. And there are the prisons—with people going in and out of jail. It’s incredibly expensive and inefficient.
What comes across in the film is how a lot of these people are very observant of the world. They’re very capable of talking for themselves. I have no doubt, if they had grown up in a different set of circumstances, it’d be entirely different.
AJG That’s what is great about the film though—they have a voice, and they’re so excited somebody is finally asking them what happened and what they know. Was there a community response to this film?
NB It’s literally being shown in Telluride and Toronto right now, and that’s it. But, when I go back I’m working with people from the Black Coalition to do some screenings. They’re obviously very active politically, and I would like for the film to be used in that way. The Black Coalition has seen the film, and their input was really useful. It would be great to get more of a debate going and to push it to a different point. The other thing we tried to do when we were shooting the film is to shoot people so they looked beautiful, rather than having kind of dingy shots of people in dingy places. I mean, they are beautiful. That’s part of the impact.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper debuts Monday, April 27th on HBO.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic and non-fiction writer. She has published arts writing with BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, IndieWire, and Syracuse.com.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.