“I just hope that her death doesn’t go in vain and that we change the way we look at those most vulnerable in our society because a lot of times instead we shove them, degrade them, pushing them to the streets, leaving them to predators like Pickton and others.”
—Karin Joesbury, whose daughter Andrea was one of Robert Pickton’s East End Vancouver victims, after his December 2007 conviction for six of possibly 49 murders.
Google Earth is used to eerie effect as Tales of the Grim Sleeper opens, inexorably zooming in on Los Angeles and Lonnie Franklin’s pin-marked home until, now via Google Street View, there’s his pixellated self, caught in the drive-by camera’s shooting, chatting with someone on the sidewalk. Cut to July 2010 and aerial footage of police all over and around the property. Franklin’s been arrested.
The garbageman-turned-mechanic’s charged with 10 murders and suspected of more than 100. (Treating lives like trash is a recurring theme here.) 180 pictures of as-yet-unidentified women, found in his possession, are released by police as the long road to trial, for crimes first committed 25 years earlier, begins. Back in 1985, as the first strangled or shot victims of whom the media later dubbed the “Grim Sleeper” were being found in South LA, the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders tried to raise awareness about the murders and pressure police to do more. But the police didn’t declare there was a serial killer until 2008, 20 years after ignoring a surviving victim’s eyewitness testimony. Besieged by unemployment (factories moved or closed) and a crack epidemic in the ’80s, South LA wasn’t taken seriously by police as a site of serial murders; most of the victims were black women working as prostitutes. So this is also a “story,” director Nick Broomfield observes, “about a people in one of the world’s most prosperous cities who have been left behind.”
At first, three of Franklin’s friends staunchly defend him to Broomfield, but later two of them offer disturbing details and recollections. The direct, matter-of-factness of Broomfield’s approach—characteristically walking the streets with his boom mike—is outdone by former prostitute and ex-crack addict Pam, who, when not telling it like it was and is, criss-crosses the neighbourhood with Broomfield in his car and talks to women passersby about whether or not they hung around with Franklin. She tracks down Photo #147—a woman who dated Franklin’s son for a time and considered the accused then just a “horny old man”—and some survivors. Chilling, harrowing tales of Franklin emerge.
Even as Broomfield’s trying to make patchwork sense of Franklin through his film, it turns out Franklin photographed and later filmed women in sexual poses. So the camera’s a truth-teller or an accessory to crime, depending on who’s wielding it. Gang shootings, bodies dumped in alleyways (not just this killer’s victims), men’s casual attitude towards sex and nude photos of women and pornography—the larger narrative’s an increasingly sordid yet mundane (making it all the sadder) story of a black community plagued by police unconcern, with the men closest to Franklin almost shruggingly inured to his voyeurism and predation on women. (The impressive fighters here are female, from Pam to two BCFBSM activists.) Broomfield, who made two documentaries about Florida killer Aileen Wuornos, utterly de-sensationalizes serial killing. Murder’s only one sub-stratum below the neglect and violence cracking seismically through the surface of this community. And it’s not over—nor ever will be for victims’ families—as Franklin’s trial is set to begin, at last, in late June. V