I used to offer a disclaimer when recommending Nick Broomfield documentaries, noting that I believe him to be a genius filmmaker but acknowledge that he’s also an acquired taste. This isn’t something I need to put out there for Tales of the Grim Sleeper. Not since his early days (not counting his brief stint with docu-drama last decade) has he been so reserved with his documentary work. It’s probably his most accessible in his four-decade career. It’s also one of his best.
While yet another investigatory feature, in which he’s again on screen a whole lot, his personality this time is not overbearing on the subject matter. He surely realized that this isn’t a tabloid story and therefore doesn’t welcome the faux-naive tabloid character that he plays in such docs as Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Kurt & Courtney and his previous release, the hugely disappointing Sarah Palin: You Betcha.
Tales is about a serial killer you’ve probably never heard of, nicknamed the Grim Sleeper by the media because of a presumed hiatus he took from killing women between the late-1980s and the 2000s. In 2010, Lonnie Franklin Jr. was arrested and charged with the attributed murders of 10 women in South Central Los Angeles over a 25 year period, and it’s thought that he may have actually taken the lives of more than 100.
Broomfield never interviews Franklin, and while he also never states why not, we could assume it’s because of what he went through with Aileen Wuornos over the course of 11 years and two documentaries (one of which I consider among the best ever made). But it’s also not a film entirely about him and whether or not he’s guilty (four years later, he still has yet to go to trial). There’s a lot more going on in Tales, regarding the LAPD, regarding communities that are racially outcast and women of a profession that is socially and legally disregarded as “nothing,” as in how cases involving murdered prostitutes (and gang members and drug addicts) are considered to be NHI crimes, meaning there was “no human involved.”
For a while, the film is focused more on Franklin and the usual serial killer stuff where neighbors claim that he was weird but “that was Lonnie” and friends retrospectively wonder about times he now seems to have been trying to confess to them. At the same time, it’s about the lax police work done for the cases, how it was hidden from the public that there were identifiable serial killings going on and that many murders weren’t on the books at all. Many of the local characters Broomfield meets, both educated and uneducated, believe the LAPD just didn’t care or maybe was happy to see black sex workers disposed of. Never mind that many of the victims weren’t sex workers. “Don’t you know all black women are hookers?” asks one of the interviewed black women.
Another character, with a stress on character, is Pam Brooks, a former sex worker and former addict who occasionally serves as a kind of tour guide for Broomfield and his son Barney, who mans the camera. Serving as a liaison between filmmakers and South Central’s streetwalkers, all of whom she either knows chummily or wants to look out for, particularly the young ones who aren’t wearing any pants, she also helps with inquiries and colorful commentary about all she knows or has heard about Franklin and the murders. Even if the elder Broomfield tried to be as much in the foreground of this doc as he usually does, she would still be its star. Look for her to receive recognition by the Cinema Eye Honors as one of their “Unforgettables.” At least she better.
She’s not the only memorable person in the film, either. There are Franklin’s neighborhood buddies, some of them more crass than others, and there’s the media-friendly Margaret Prescod, founder of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, an organization set up in the ’80s to pressure the police to do more. And in the film’s final moments we meet some late additions for a tremendously powerful sequence that sums up a greater issue being explored here that is bigger than a single prolific serial killer or one police department’s failure to protect its citizens.
With its Los Angeles setting and plot filled with sex and murder and police corruption, on the surface Tales might be the closest thing there is to nonfiction noir, with Broomfield an ever-narrating hardboiled detective leading the way. But it’s hardly a pulp story, its complications deeper than warrants a clever line of “forget it, Nick, it’s South Central.”
This is a film about a quandary of a community, one where everyone appears to know everyone else, yet nobody seems to really know what’s going on — or is too afraid to say so; a community too immersed in drugs and death and disregard that serial killings, even those reaching hundreds of bodies, aren’t noticeable. But it’s a community that Broomfield captures with his usual inquisitiveness, without his usual interjection.
He’s still as provocative as ever, but rather than provoking his subjects, he provokes his audience in a way we’re not used to from him. I’d be more excited for his thoughtful maturity with the film if I wasn’t too busy being moved by it. And anyway, part of that maturity comes with us not putting all the attention on him for once.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper debuts on HBO on April 27, 2015, after which it will be available on HBO On Demand, HBO Go and HBO Now.
This review was originally published on September 7, 2014.