As any journalist will tell you, most journalists don’t end up the star of a story—let alone a TV show or movie. (“All the Preisdent’s Men”—huge exception; unprecedented story.) But that’s pretty much the case with the movie, “The Grim Sleeper,” which premieres Saturday night on the Lifetime cable channel and is based on the true story of tenacious reporter Christine Pelisek who spent months tracking the connections among a series of slayings of young black women in South L.A. that started in the 1980s, stopped then resumed in the early 2000s.
She dogged her source in the L.A. County coroner’s office, pestered cops in several cities in the area into talking, and coaxed distraught family members to trust her. Her first story in the L.A. Weekly in 2008 on the “Grim Sleeper”—as she and her editor dubbed the murderer because of the break between the first spate of killings and the second—alerted the community to a serial killer in its midst and rained down a firestorm of criticism onto top city and police officials for not making the danger public.
In July 2010, police arrested Lonnie David Franklin Jr. and charged him with killing 10 women and attempting to kill an 11th woman. He is in jail, still awaiting trial.
But as much as it’s great to see terrific journalism praised and cheered (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I know Pelisek, and one of the executive producers, Joe Pichirallo, is a longtime friend) what’s really interesting and heartening is to see a movie that focuses a good portion of the time on black people in Los Angeles living a variety of lives, some affluent, some working class, one a police detective, all intersecting with each other -- and Pelisek -- because of these tragic events.
The real breakout performance is by the singer Macy Gray who portrays the sole survivor of a brutal attack by the Grim Sleeper -- she’s called “Margette” in the movie -- with a quirky mix of toughness and girlish humor. At the end of a screening of the movie at the American Film Institute on Thursday night, it wasn’t surprising that the packed theater gave a robust round of applause to Gray who shyly stuck her head out from behind a wall when director Stanley M. Brooks introduced her. But the true testament to the power of Gray’s performance -- and the story, itself -- came when the director introduced the real survivor, Enietra Washington, sitting in the theater, and the entire audience rose to its feet to give her a standing ovation.
I’m not saying “The Grim Sleeper” is “12 Years a Slave.” But it is evidence that Hollywood can make movies about interesting, non-white parts of L.A. that get short shrift in most films and TV shows. Just like Christine Pelisek wrote stories about a part of L.A. that was often neglected.