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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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AFI Reality Movies: American Sniper, SELMA, Tales of The Grim Sleeper

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

Only Clint Eastwood could take the story of slain US Military Sniper Chris Kyle, who was mysteriously shot and killed at age 38 last year at a Texas gun range by a fellow vet, and make it a hit as well as a memorial to the man in question. The surprise screening of this highly anticipated feature film last night at AFI Fest presented by AUDI was a crowd-thriller, especially in its subtlety, its restrained sound design, the whoosh of wind, the crack of bullets, and the long silences in between.

Bradley Cooper basically inhabits the role of Kyle, the most decorated-ever ‘American Sniper’ known by the enemy as the so-called ‘Devil of Ramadi.’ His confirmed (body found) and claimed (no body found) war-kills total into triple digits. Consider that this man could literally blow your head off at 5280 ft. (a literal mile), which made this former Navy SEAL a hero even among snipers who consider any target over 3000 ft. truly difficult.

But this story, based on the book “American Sniper” by Chris Kyle, which Bradley Cooper bought the rights to and allegedly once had Spielberg in mind to direct, brings up the challenge of depicting a real-life situation on film. 

There is no argument that American Sniper, to be released in Dec. is a must-see, both for Bradley Cooper’s DNA-level performance and Eastwood’s skillfully compassionate direction. 

However, like two other reality-based or true-story-based movies at AFI, SELMA about Martin Luther King Jr. and his ascendency with the Civil Rights movement, and Tales of the Grim Sleeper (dir. Nick Broomfield) about a scourge in the black community in South Central Los Angeles where a serial killer went unchecked for 25-plus years, questions arise outside the critical framework of the film as art itself.

There is no doubt SELMA, even the word association with pivotal moments in the South, starring David Oyelowo is a meaningful film. Produced by Oprah Winfrey among others, SELMA is a historic period piece important as a historic period piece, a new take on a familiar story. Also a very important one to tell. But Tales of the Grim Sleeper involves ongoing litigation that involves an incarcerated suspect who has allegedly wantonly sexually brutalized, tortured, and slain women he considered ‘just whores, prostitutes.’ And the LAPD is seen by some as culpable in this long run of terror because these women where ‘just whores, prostitutes.’ 

So, down the block from SELMA at the Egyptian Theatre, after Tales of the Grim Sleeper is screened, it turns out at least two members of an LAPD Task Force have surreptitiously entered the theater and are called out by Margaret Prescod, a victim advocate who has been trying to shed light on the ritual slaughter/disappearance of hundreds of women in South Central LA since 1985. 

Nick Broomfield is on stage with Pamela Brooks from South Central LA and Margaret Prescod as she points out the LAPD in the audience. When the spotlight in the theatre is turned to the unexpected guests from law enforcement, they are invited to the stage to introduce themselves and make a statement. 

Nick Broomfield appears to welcome their input, although they decline to participate, possibly because of the litigation underway, the scrutiny put on the LAPD in the wake of this ‘scandal’ and more likely because they are not authorized to go on the record. Erring in their favor, one could say they are just here to watch the movie, but their presence is palpably intimidating, even for the audience.  

Yet Broomfield as director of this documentary brings in another dimension of confusion. It is Pamela Brooks, community activist and a now-sober former prostitute, who set up his access into South Central LA and calls him “my England boy… some white boy from England.” Which begs the question, should this story be told by “some white boy from England”?

Basically no one listened to Margaret Prescod for a quarter of a century while she stood front and center in the neighborhood and in the media, yelling and screaming to be heard - to be a voice of the dead girls and women ages 14 and up, and for their surviving families who had no attention paid to their loss. 

This is Selma all over again, in other words, where someone has to take a stand and overcome the opposition to delving into the murders of so many black girls and women. Hundreds of polaroid to 35 mm to digital snapshots of these victims were found in the alleged ‘Grim Sleeper’s’ possession, and these smiling faces, unaware they will be later ritually killed, have flown by on screen.

American Sniper, SELMA, and Tales of the Grim Sleeper all deal with the value of human life (whether at home or abroad) and the notion of personal and social responsibility. Each film presents a specific facet of how we, as a society, process the concepts of war hero vs patriot vs cold blooded killer.

AFI Fest presented by AUDI really opens an opportunity for dialogue here, both for cineastes and the general public at large, and underscores the importance of visual story-telling as a way to examine our core beliefs as a culture.


Next Up: Sophia Loren Tribute, Marriage Italian Style, and the screening of Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore.


Stay tuned for more thought-provoking programming from AFI Fest presented by AUDI.


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About Quendrith Johnson

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