A grisly multiple murder case opens up a broader inquisition into racial and social inequality in Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which premiers at Telluride today before screening in Toronto next week and the New York Film Festival early October. The idiosyncratic British documentary maker Nick Broomfield has a long track record of playfully critical films about high-profile figures, from Margaret Thatcher to Heidi Fleiss to Sarah Palin. But he also has a sideline making serious-minded investigations into crime and punishment in America, including two documentaries about another serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. The provocative subject matter plus Broomfield’s solid reputation should ensure decent audience interest beyond the festival bubble.
Nicknamed “the Grim Sleeper” by local media outlets due to an apparent 14-year hiatus between killing sprees, Lonnie Franklin Jr. is currently awaiting trial for a dozen murders, a list that may yet grow to a record-breaking 100 or more. His victims were overwhelmingly black women, usually crack addicts and prostitutes, mostly from the same inner-city L.A. neighborhood where he lived. The first recorded murder occurred in 1985, yet the LAPD were very slow to warn the public about a serial killer on the loose, only breaking the news in 2008. Franklin was finally arrested in 2010 after undercover officers surreptitious secured saliva samples from his son Chris Franklin in a restaurant, confirming a DNA link to the crimes.
In keeping with his signature style, Broomfield turns the film into a personal quest, appearing on camera himself as he calls on friends and neighbors of Franklin for interviews. Some are hostile, others helpful, others extremely revealing. One former drinking buddy jokes abut the “freaky shit” Franklin liked to do to with women: “You get in his car, you ain’t coming out!” he jokes callously. Broomfield’s most useful contact is Pam Brooks, a fearless and outspoken ex-addict and former prostitute, who becomes his chief fixer and tour guide to South Central LA’s mean streets. If this film has a star, it is Pam.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper could easily have been sensational and prurient, turning murder into pornographic entertainment. Broomfield is certainly not immune to moments of voyeurism, graphically detailing some of Franklin’s sexualized violence and bluntly asking former victims “at what point did he rape you?” But his main focus is on the deeper social context of the killings: poverty, racism and a seeming lack of police concern about the deaths of poor black sex workers. A recurring point made by several interviewees is how much more urgently the case would have been solved if the victims had been rich and white.
Noting the tragic irony that ingrained distrust for the police in impoverished African-American communities only makes it easier for black-on-black killers to evade capture, Broomfield lands some fairly easy blows against white privilege and racial injustice here. But he throws little fresh light on the Grim Sleeper case itself. The LAPD declines to comment and Lonnie Franklin only appears in courtroom footage, while his son Chris gives Broomfield a grudging, unrepentant, depressingly defiant interview: “What would he apologize for?”
Shot in mostly hand-held verite style by the director’s cinematographer son Barney Broomfield, Tales of the Grim Sleeper is unusually somber and conventional by Broomfield’s standards, relying more on slow accumulation of detail than caustic commentary or ambush interviews. But it has a quiet emotional force which pays off during the powerful final sequence, a collage of interviews with women who narrowly escaped Franklin’s clutches. They are angry, tearful and impressively honest. But most just appear shocked that, for possibly the first time ever, somebody is taking an interest in their stories.
Production company: South Central Films Ltd
Starring: Nick Broomfield, Pam Brooks, Enietra Washington, Chris Franklin
Director: Nick Broomfield
Producer: Marc Hoeferlin
Cinematographer: Barney Broomfield
Editors: Marc Hoeferlin, Joe Bini
Music: H Scott Salinas
Sales company: Submarine Entertainment
Rating 18A, 105 minutes