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Whodunit? That question has long animated true crime. But as crime documentaries — about murder in particular — have multiplied in recent years, so too have the approaches to telling such stories. For filmmakers seeking to transcend what can be a formulaic genre, the question of “Who?” has taken a back seat to “So what?” What do these stories about victims and perpetrators say about us as a society? And why does it matter?
Questions like those drew director Matthew Galkin, 46, to journalist Ethan Brown’s 2016 book Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis Eight?, about the deaths of eight women in rural Louisiana from 2005 to 2009. With Brown’s help, Galkin turned Murder in the Bayou into a five-part series for Showtime, exploring not just the killings, which shockingly remain unsolved, but the deeply troubled town of Jennings and the humanity of its people.
Railroad tracks bisect Jennings, and the south side is painfully poor and plagued by drug abuse and mental illness. “It’s an obvious chasm in that town between the haves and the have-nots,” Galkin says. “I can’t even say that the people on the south side are second-class citizens. It’s like they almost don’t exist.” That imbalance of power is magnified by local law enforcement’s alleged criminal misconduct and potential involvement in the murders; the police seem to act with impunity, and the poor and people of color — women in particular — seem to have no recourse. So while the murders frame the story, Jennings’ grievous inequities steal the show.
“It’s about class structure. It’s about the insane gender dynamics in that town and the toxic masculinity that was there. It’s about addiction,” Galkin says. “All of these kinds of socioeconomic themes were in a lot of ways more important to us than the actual true-crime elements of it.”
Such themes also were central for Sam Pollard, who directed HBO’s five-part Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children. The series chronicles the killings of 29 Black people, mostly children, in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981, when the city was becoming a beacon of upward mobility for the African American community. When police attributed most of the murders to a Black man, Wayne Williams (who’s now serving a life sentence), many questioned whether they scapegoated him to prevent the Black community from rioting, as they suspected might happen if the perpetrator were white. And beyond whether Williams is really responsible, other questions — about the police response, the role of race in the investigation, the destruction of evidence and the potential involvement of the Ku Klux Klan — remain.
Just like in Jennings, the Atlanta victims’ families have found no closure, amplifying the core issue of the powerlessness of marginalized communities. “This imbalance of power is a part of American history,” Pollard says. “The justice system is supposed to be blind, but I don’t think that justice is blind when it comes to people of color and poor people and working-class people.”
Perhaps no act of violence leaves more unanswered questions than suicide. That’s how the subject of Netflix’s Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, a onetime NFL superstar who was convicted of murder, met his end in 2017. Director Geno McDermott, 34, started working on the project in January of that year, teaming with journalists Kevin Armstrong and Dan Wetzel, who had long followed Hernandez’s sports career. At that time, the former New England Patriots tight end was serving a life sentence for the murder of his friend Odin Lloyd and had been indicted for the murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado.
“I think at that point everyone just kind of wrote him off as a typical professional athlete that got into some bad things and [someone who is] going to spend the rest of his life in prison,” McDermott says. “I was interested because everyone [else had] lost interest.”
But things quickly changed. On April 14, Hernandez was acquitted of the double homicide. A few days later, a reporter on a sports radio show suggested the football player was gay — a deeply fraught notion in the world of sports. And on April 19, Hernandez was found dead in his cell. What had begun as a tragic but fairly straightforward true-crime feature morphed into a three-episode series touching on homosexuality, sexuality in sports, the treatment of professional athletes and chronic traumatic encephalopathy — brain degeneration caused by repeated head trauma — with which Hernandez was eventually diagnosed.
While McDermott set out to tell a true-crime tale and ended up with something more complex, the directors of Netflix’s smash hit Tiger King “stumbled into a true-crime documentary,” says director Rebecca Chaiklin, 50, of protagonist and big cat collector Joe Exotic ending up in jail for, among other crimes, killing tigers and plotting the murder of a rival, Carole Baskin.
Chaiklin and fellow director Eric Goode, 62, who has an extensive background in wildlife conservation, had planned a documentary series about the subculture of big cat ownership and the plight of animals in that kind of captivity. They had no idea they’d end up chronicling Joe’s arrest and conviction; the takeover of his zoo by another questionable big cat collector, Jeff Lowe; the disappearance of Baskin’s first husband; or the accidental death of one of Joe’s husbands, among other surreal occurrences.
Unlike a typical true-crime project, “we were filming it as it was unfolding,” Chaiklin explains. “We were at Joe’s filming away with him, having no idea what was transpiring behind the curtain when the FBI was surrounding his facility and [the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service] was surrounding it. Literally things were unfolding before us, and we were just trying to make sense of them, so it was a very different approach.”
And they didn’t lose sight of their goal: to tell a larger story about the plight of the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 captive big cats in private facilities in America. “The goal was how do you tell a story and in the end make a difference?” Goode says. “But how do you tell it in a way that’s not depressing or preachy or the voice of God like so many documentaries that talk about wildlife issues? It’s difficult to watch films where you’re watching dolphins getting bludgeoned to death [as in 2009’s The Cove]. We had to thread that needle carefully.”
The series apparently has made a difference, raising awareness and catalyzing public support for the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which seeks to prohibit the practice of cub-petting (tigers are often ripped from their mothers, abused and later killed when they outgrow their “cuteness”) and the private ownership of big cats.
Beyond its subject matter and outrageous characters, Tiger King also diverges from the true-crime genre in its look. Instead of classic tropes like news footage and crime-scene photos, the filmmakers made extensive use of their subjects’ own video archives. “We had the incredible fortune of having these characters who filmed so much of their own lives,” Chaiklin explains, which perhaps contributes to the show’s reality TV aesthetic but also provides a wealth of insight into how the characters see themselves.
Visual style also separates Galkin’s Bayou from most true-crime docs, albeit in a different way. “I was very, very deliberate as to the aesthetic that I thought this series should have,” he says. “I was looking at [classic films] like Out of the Past or Night of the Hunter, these sort of Southern Gothic movies that I love that just had a way of framing and presenting people’s faces that I thought was incredibly powerful.”
Even Bayou‘s talking heads are striking. Because local TV stations failed to keep most of their newscasts from the time, Galkin and cinematographer Jeff Hutchens faced a dearth of archival footage and needed shots to cut to. That pushed them to design an artful look for the interviews. “It was incredibly important that these didn’t feel like formal interviews, that they almost felt like portraitures of people living in their houses, being in their living rooms,” Galkin says. “It was a huge challenge for us editorially, but it went to inform how we shot the interviews because we knew we were going to have to live in those interviews for a long time.”
Mark Lewis, 53, director of Netflix’s Don’t F*ck With Cats, also had to get creative about what shots to cut to and how they would look. The gripping three-part series follows a group of amateur sleuths searching for a cat killer who anonymously posts videos of the slayings on the internet. Knowing that violence against animals often escalates to violence against humans, the sleuths, led by casino data analyst Deanna Thompson and John Green, the alias for an L.A. online investigator, hunt down the cat killer — a deeply troubled narcissist who does indeed go on to murder a person, a man named Jun Lin, and tape and post that video as well.
By definition, much of the action is Thompson and Green sitting at their computers, looking at Facebook and Google — hardly the stuff of cinema. “Whether you watch TV news or current-affairs news, forever and a day we’re seeing people research things on the internet,” Lewis says. “The shots are boring, aren’t they? I mean they look awful. They look dull. … So it was absolutely a challenge for us to try to make researching on the internet exciting and dramatic — as dramatic as it really was.”
To create a compelling visual language, Lewis captured stills of real comments, posts and web searches, reanimated them and made them fill the screen. The graphics are slick, the cuts are fast, and the suspense is visceral.
But while the classic whodunit motivation drives Cats, the series really isn’t about the killer. It’s about the kind of society that produces the type of person who would “kill for clicks,” as Lewis describes it. “I think it has something very important to say about our relationship with the internet, our relationship with internet culture and our relationship with social media, and indeed all of our interest and sometimes quest for celebrity and notoriety.”
The subject matter also begs the question of whether it’s ethical to make a show featuring a person like the killer in the first place — and whether it’s ethical to watch it. Knowing these issues would arise, Lewis has Thompson — who, along with Green shared these reservations about participating in the project — conclude the series by breaking the fourth wall and asking the viewers if they themselves are complicit.
“What does it say about our thirst for true crime and murder stories and serial killers?” Lewis asks. “What does it say?”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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