Documentary Blows Open Serial Killer's 25-Year Spree of Killing Black Women and Shocking Lack of Interest in Catching Him
By the mid-1980s, the Los Angeles Police Department knew there was a prolific serial killer operating in the South Central section of the city. His victims, like most of the residents of the area, were overwhelmingly African American and poor. All were women; many worked as prostitutes, often to fund drug addictions. In 1988, when the death toll was nearly 20 bodies deep, a single survivor lived to tell police key information indispensable to any murder investigation: the type of car the killer drove, the block he lived on, identifying features for an eyewitness sketch. A .25 caliber bullet was recovered from the victim’s chest, linking her attack to the murders of at least eight other women from the same area. But police, in a pattern that becomes maddeningly and infuriatingly familiar over the course of Nick Broomfield’s documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper, chose to do nothing with that information. They failed to undertake even the most basic requirement for ensuring public safety: alerting residents of South Central Los Angeles that a serial murderer was killing, and very likely living, amongst them.
Broomfield’s documentary is filled with revelations such as these, insights that demonstrate how Los Angeles police’s indifference to—and barely concealed contempt for—its poorest, most marginalized citizens allowed Grim Sleeper killer suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr. to murder dozens of African-American women over 25 years. Nana Gyamfi, a lawyer involved with the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, a grassroots South Central organization that sprang up in the ‘80s in the absence of political will to find the killer, compared the LAPD’s withholding of key evidence from the public to “allow[ing] black women to walk around…where someone is hunting them, not knowing they’re being hunted.” Pam Brooks, a former prostitute who, by default, becomes a key investigator in Broomfield’s fact-finding mission, speaks even more bluntly about how the case demonstrates the devaluation of poor black women’s lives. “The police don’t care because these are black women…I’m a black woman. Who gives a fuck about me?”
Tales of the Grim Sleeper is ostensibly a story about alleged serial killer Franklin, but at its heart, Broomfield’s latest effort is a damning indictment of a criminal justice system that rarely recognizes black lives matter. Lonnie Franklin Jr. was finally arrested on July 7, 2010, more than a quarter of a century after the killings began. He is charged with 10 counts of murder and one attempted murder, though the actual number of victims is suspected to run as high as 100. Franklin’s trial, at long last, is set to begin this summer.
I spoke recently to Nick Broomfield ahead of his timely and necessary documentary’s premiere on HBO on April 27. The director offered insights on making the movie, lessons learned, and how the film might play a role in helping our terribly broken system of criminal justice begin to mend.
Kali Holloway: I’ve seen a lot of your films and this one, in particular, was a real punch in the gut. It's just an incredible piece.
Nick Broomfield: Thank you so much.
KH: I'm wondering, how did you first learn about the story, and what made you decide to look into it and dedicate a film to it?
NB: Well, I've lived in Los Angeles, one way or another, for a long time. It's a very difficult city to get to know because it's a subdivided city.
KH: You mean socioeconomically?
NB: Well, yeah. You just get the feeling you don't go into much of the city and the bigger part of the city is almost [all] Latino and black. [White residents] actually just tread a very narrow path, which is pretty much the white areas of town.
The city is not at all recovered from those racial laws of the ‘50s and stuff. It's pretty much still very segregated. It's much more racially segregated, for example, than places in England. And I've always found it a real challenge to try and get to know L.A. and understand L.A.
And I obviously got to know it a bit when I was doing [the 2002 documentary] Biggie & Tupac. Because I tried understanding Compton. And I remember at the time thinking how incredibly hospitable the people were and actually how pleased they were that we were down there and we were interested in hearing their point of view. Plus, I actually really loved some of the food there.
But anyway – and then I came across this series of articles that a journalist called Christine Pelisek had written in the LA Weekly, as well as a very good Newsweek piece about the Lonnie Franklin murders. And it got me interested and I spent some time going [to South Central L.A.]. I met with Christine because I felt that the biggest story really is, obviously, this inherent racism that enabled this whole situation to happen.
NB: No real reporting of it in the newspapers. It wasn’t regarded as really properly newsworthy. No political pressure on the police to solve the murders because no one really cared.
I think it's very easy to blame the police. But the police [are] representative of a bigger political system. They're just doing what they're told and what they feel they need to do. And what they feel they need to do is to protect the white areas of the city, and they don't feel any great responsibility to places like South Central. And I think that's coming from a political system. And until there's legislation that goes through Congress that really changes—that’s very clear about what a police [force] is supposed to do, and there are repercussions for policemen who obviously don't do what they're supposed to do, nothing really is going to change. I think that's what so clearly came out of the story for me.
So, I just felt that it was a story that dealt with the zeitgeist of the moment, which is that we are at such a crossroad in terms of trying to find some kind of real political program that moves something. It's not just about replacing the business manager in Ferguson and chief of police and the judge. Because Ferguson is pretty much the same as Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is the same as South Carolina and all these other places. I hope the debate will be what kind of legislation do we need to pass on a federal level that will actually bring in a different system. This isn't just the Lonnie Franklin story, or all the other stories that we see in the newspapers all the time. It’s representative of a much bigger political system. So I want that to be one of the debates that comes out of it.
KH: I was going to ask you if that was what you wanted the takeaway to be when you entered the process of making the film, and if you hoped that it would launch a bigger dialogue. Obviously, there's a huge national conversation happening right now around policing in black communities. I'm not sure if that conversation was already in motion when you started shooting.
NB: No, I think this was pre-Ferguson, really. I was obviously really surprised at the extent of the racism, basically. And the lack of—I mean, I was completely shocked. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. So when I eventually went into the community and people said, oh, the police were involved. The police knew and they didn't do anything. I was kind of, oh yeah, sure. But the longer I spent there, the more I saw. It was like, anytime you saw the police in South Central It was handing out speeding tickets or stopping people for having a faulty rear light and things and handing out tickets. Absolutely in the mold that you then heard about with Ferguson.
NB: I didn't know that when I was starting the film. But I realized that it's just part of a national pattern. It's not particular to the LAPD.
KH: Can we...talk about NHI and “No Human Involved”? Because it's a policy that I only became familiar with really recently and people probably won't know what it is. Can you discuss what it is and the implications of it?
NB: There is a police slang term that, when the police call in a homicide, for example, they would say "NHI," [meaning] “no human involved.” Which [means] don't really bother with proper forensics. He’s a John Doe or Jane Doe. It's a homeless person, a drug addict, prostitute, gang member, we don't really care. We probably don't expect to find the person responsible. Just book it in. But don't spend a lot of time on it.
That's kind of what it means. It's used for disposable people. People who aren't worthy of a proper inquiry. And again, disposable people, people who obviously aren't represented, aren't considered part of the political process, have no employment. They don't count.
KH: So it fits into this whole bigger picture of a marginalized community where people are completely disregarded and their lives devalued.
NB: I think it does happen in poor white communities, too. But it's particularly bad in the black communities. Or it's much more widespread.
KH: When you were talking before, and trying to put this into the bigger context of what's problematic about the way the policing happens in… poor and black communities, you’d said it's easy to blame the police. And obviously, this problem has much bigger political and sociopolitical implications. But in this case, it was astounding to me to watch, step by step, the kind of things that the police didn't do. The kind of information that they didn't release. At a certain point, the police almost seemed obstructionist in this case.
NB: I think when [Lonnie Franklin’s son] Christopher said that [his father] had a sort of fan base among cops—well, I think that's kind of it it. Which is, “These people are disposable.” It's like that NHI problem.
KH: This is something I wanted to ask you about—if you thought that what Christopher said was true. That that attitude on the part of the cops was part of the problem.
NB: They just feel these people are taking their time up. They're constantly re-arresting the same people week in, week out. They’re in prison, they’re out of prison. They're not contributing anything to the city. They’re a drain on resources. And they're better out of the way. That's the pretty common attitude. And I think it's not a priority.
We're talking about an area of the city which really has no political representative that’s of any clout. There’s [Representative] Maxine Waters who tries very hard. But most of the other political representatives are not funded by South Central. They might have come from South Central. People like Herb Wesson, president of the [Los Angeles City] Council. They come from South Central but they don’t seem to be in any way serving South Central.
They're serving probably the police union—they’re probably getting more money from them. So it goes to the heart of a political system that simply does not work in terms of representing so many of these communities. Because politically, they are highly disorganized and ruptured. They don't have a functioning political caucus that is representing their needs and their demands and their citizens. You realize that, yeah, okay, the police have done a shitty job and the police don't care. And the police regard them as disposable people. And all of this is because they just don't register in the political system. They don't have the finances or the organization to have a voice.
And part of that disposableness is the community is essentially disposable. It doesn't have any political weight. Even though there are not a lot of people there. No one really hears what they've got to say. No one's there to get what they want. And I think that's really how politics work, isn’t it? If you’ve got a powerful political base, you've got powerful people pushing for you. That's when there's some change. That's how it operates.
NB: There's still a crack problem in South Central which has never been treated in a proper [way]. Even though there’s overwhelming evidence that the crack came in with Oliver North during that whole Nicaraguan thing. It's still treated as though that's an individual problem. If you’re on crack in South Central, you failed in some way. It's not regarded as, actually this is a community that has an enormous problem. There's no responsibility taken for how it got there in the first place. And then because of the drug laws and so on, you don't see many younger people because most of them are in prison for crack possession or whatever.
It's just sort of a vicious circle from that point on. For me, this was a learning experience. I had no idea that there was this completely vicious system in effect that made it incredibly difficult for people to get on with their lives and have fulfilling lives and have fulfilling careers. Because everything is stacked against them in so many ways. I think those are some of the things I didn't realize in such a clear way.
KH: You hear a lot of people in the movie say things like, “What if victim number three had been blonde-haired and blue-eyed?” Or, when you're talking to the surviving victim, whose account was essentially ignored because she was called “unreliable,” she jokingly said, "Every black woman is a hooker. Didn't you know that?" And then a British paper, the Daily Mail, in 2012 did this piece about the fact that there are 64,000 missing black women in America. And very, very few of those cases have gotten any national press attention. Few of them have even gotten attention in their local towns.
So, I just wonder how making this film, for you, informed your idea of how we as a country regard—or disregard—black women.
NB: Yeah. It really is a form of almost mini-genocide. And you would expect the justice system to operate in an impartial manner and to care. But I think this has just been gone on for so long. So long. That people are just not regarded as being politically weighty. Unrepresented. A police force that's probably overworked. Sees themselves as serving other priorities. They make a choice as to what cases they're going to follow on and what cases they feel they need to get results on. And these are simply not cases that anyone cares about.
So, yes. These are disposable human beings. These are NHI. But I do think it goes back to Congress really. And the major political parties. Because I think the lead has to come from them. And there needs to be legislation that will make it very clear that the police need to investigate these things. They need to be responsible for their actions in a way that they aren't at the moment.
KH: And your hopefulness of seeing that happen?
NB: Well, I think there is a growing movement at the moment. And I think Ferguson has been incredibly useful in providing a touchstone for that. And I think more and more people are aware of the fact that this is a national problem. It's not just a Ferguson problem. And it's not really just a police problem. This is a political problem.
Obviously, a political problem that goes back probably to slavery and having legislation that reflects properly that there isn't in fact slavery anymore and everybody has been given an equal chance, equal education. It really goes back to those things. In fact, Nana Gyamfi, the lawyer—
KH: Who’s one of my favorite people in the movie, by the way.
KH: She says so many incredible things.
NB: I think she's so incredible.
KH: Yeah, absolutely.
NB: She gives this amazing course at [the California Institute of Technology] which is basically about the judicial system and the way in which it, from the end of slavery, has just basically found ways of incarcerating black people. And marginalizing them politically. It's an incredible course. And you realize obviously the drug laws are just part of that.
And you see the direct results of what she's talking about in South Central. This is a marginalized community which is politically unrepresented. So many of the people there are disenfranchised. They can't vote, even if they want to.
KH: Yeah, It's interesting because you mention early on in the film that a third of the men in the community have felonious counts against them. Which obviously means that there's a lot of opportunities that are closed to them. So, at the same time the community is under-policed in terms of the police not taking care of the people there, it’s hyper-policed in this other way.
NB: And they just think, we don’t have to take care. It enables the police to behave the way they're behaving. I'm sure it’s, of course, exactly the same in Ferguson and all over the place.
KH: And then I wonder—and there's no way you can really know this—but having spoken to many people who actually had relationships with Lonnie…do you think [he] saw himself as someone who was cleaning up the streets? Obviously, he is a complex personality.
NB: I do. I think in his own demented way [he did]. He saw himself as very much a pillar of the community. Somebody who gave people jobs, who was a generous person, who was well liked, who liked his neighbors, who was operating from the best possible position, I think. You know, he still has not admitted to the crimes.
There's a psychologist who goes in and sees him every week; a couple of times a week. And he not only likes him very much but sees him as somebody who's a caring citizen and who certainly saw himself as a pillar of that community. And cared very much for the community. And he's very hurt and offended by what people have said about him.
KH: Wow. And are there any new updates since the film was made?
NB: Not really. I think there's a day that's been set for the end of June. I was surprised to hear that Lonnie is still denying everything and sees himself as being wrongly imprisoned and somebody who really believes he did a lot to the community. Just little things like that really.
KH: Obviously, we're talking about this in the greater context of what's happening right now and the dialogue around policing in black communities and that relationship and how fraught it is. And there’s the Black Lives Matter movement happening right now—and there is pushback on that movement. A lot of people are saying, let's have a conversation about this, let's try to move the needle on it, let's try and create legislation that actually holds police accountable and that holds an entire political system accountable.
There's also pushback from people who say this isn't a racialized thing. Or when they see Black Lives Matter, their response is, it should actually be All Lives Matter.
I wonder if you could just speak to that and why something like the Black Lives Matter movement, and the encapsulation of the movement in those words, would be important. Just based on what you've seen in this case and the wider implications that it holds.
NB: Well, even today, talking to a couple of the journalists who are probably more informed than most people who live in Los Angeles, they say, "We were completely unaware of really what the conditions are like in South Central Los Angeles. We never, never go down there."
There were a lot of revelations in the film for us that we were unaware of. We were unaware of this attitude of NHI on the part of the police. We were unaware of the deliberate withholding of information from the community that there [was] this mass killing going on. We were unaware of all that. We're unaware of it because there's very little communication between the white and black communities in this city. There is a complete division. And that's why, I think, if most [white] people were really aware of what Black Lives Matter is about, it's about a different world to the one they'd experienced. Most [white] people here have such a sheltered, separate existence that they just don't know what, I think, black communities are up against. It's a whole other world. And it's a different police force than the one they encounter. With different opportunities. Not just on an economic level, but on a political level and a health level. I mean, the obesity rates. The terrible hospitals. The malnutrition. All those kinds of things that you get in [poor] communities. It's like a different world which might be just 10 miles from where a white person lives. But it's a whole different life expectation.
And that's why I think you get those kinds of comments. "All Lives Matter"—well, of course all lives matter. But it’s because they don’t really understand the differences.
KH: It's been great talking to you. I think Tales of the Grim Sleeper could be catalytic in some way. It’s definitely an amazing contribution to a conversation that's ongoing.
NB: Well, I would like this film to get come kind of dialogue going between the people who run the city, like the mayor [Eric] Garcetti; Herb Wesson, president of the [City] Council; the police chief, Charlie Beck. I've pushed very hard to get that dialogue going. They've all been approached to do a screening. Initially, they all said they’d do it and yet again they’ve backed away from engaging in some kind of meaningful dialogue with the people of South Central. People like Black Coalition [Fighting Back Serial Murders] and so on.
And I'm very disappointed that they have been so unforthcoming so far. And I would like them to change their attitude and to find the time to actually engage in a meaningful dialogue with that community. And I think they owe it to them.