Veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield's "Tales of the Grim Sleeper" is a riveting and chilling investigation into the world of Lonnie Franklin Jr., a South Los Angeles resident arrested in 2010 and accused in a string of serial rape-killings spanning 22 years. The film is as much a provocative exposé of Franklin, who awaits trial on murder charges and has proclaimed his innocence, as it is a vivid portrait of a community long plagued by drugs, crime, poverty and desperation.
Perhaps most vital, however, is the movie's timely snapshot of a justice system — largely embodied here by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department — that Broomfield portrays as undervaluing the lives of African American victims and apathetic toward crimes that occur in poor neighborhoods. (Virtually all of the targets in the Grim Sleeper case were young black women, some thought to be drug addicts, prostitutes or both.)
Whatever Broomfield's personal take on the case may be — and he certainly presents Franklin, now 62, as a misogynist and opportunist potentially capable of horrific acts — there's no escaping the notion that the killing of so many African Americans went on as long as it did because of a complex web of social, racial, political and financial forces. A key issue explored is how more than 20 years passed before South L.A. residents were warned about a potential serial killer.
Broomfield ("Kurt & Courtney," "Biggie and Tupac") brashly hits the streets around Franklin's longtime home. With the help of area residents — especially an unvarnished ex-hooker and recovering crack addict named Pam as well as several of Franklin's friends and neighbors — the filmmaker paints a bruising picture of a man engulfed by sinister sexual desires and shady dealings, yet also capable of generosity and bonhomie.
For those closest to Franklin, including his adult son, the suspect's purported treatment of women, violent talk and shadowy use of a church van were seen as not completely out of bounds for the hard-knock environs. That some of Franklin's observers admit to being compromised by drugs also accounts for their lack of judgment at the time.
The film also features archival news clips, eerie courtroom footage of Franklin and chats with family members of Franklin's alleged victims and with local activists. But it's a concluding interview with downtrodden neighborhood residents — women who lived to talk of their interactions with Franklin — that provides a sad and viscerally powerful coda to this immersive, eye-opening documentary.
"Tales of the Grim Sleeper."
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.