HBO’s documentary programming has always been strong, but it’s rarely been as culturally relevant as it is right now. After The Jinx and Going Clear—and with Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck waiting in the wings—HBO’s docs are suddenly the subject of think pieces, follow-up stories, and Saturday Night Live sketches. There’s been a rare confluence on HBO lately of accomplished filmmakers doing artful and accessible work, tackling attention-grabbing subjects.
Tales Of The Grim Sleeper isn’t likely to generate any memes, but it may be the best of HBO’s recent slate. It has just as impressive a pedigree, too. British director Nick Broomfield has been making non-fiction features for more than 40 years, launching his career in the cinema verité era and then helping to define the style of first-person, investigative cine-journalism that Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock practice. Broomfield has turned his fascination with scandal and celebrity into some of the best-known documentaries of the 1990s and early 2000s: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Kurt & Courtney, and Biggie And Tupac.
The knock against Broomfield in the past—and it’s a fair one—is that his method of casting himself as a quizzical naïf in his films can come off as both disingenuous and self-serving. He pretends to know less than he does, then presents information to the viewer not as an authority, but as a guy who just happened on something quirky or damning. By making himself the central figure in his work, Broomfield gives himself an out, allowing the excuse that his documentaries are just one man’s limited perspective on criminals and crimes, and not any kind of definitive report.
But where Broomfield’s style can be irritating when he’s tackling big, well-known stories—like the stormy relationship between Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain—it’s exactly the right approach to take to Tales Of The Grim Sleeper. Broomfield arrives in South Central Los Angeles with his son and cinematographer Barney, and starts asking questions about a man named Lonnie Franklin Jr., who stands accused of murdering anywhere from 20 to 100 women over the course of 25 years. The more Broomfield talks to people who knew Franklin and know about the case, the clearer it becomes that it’s these conversations that Tales Of The Grim Sleeper is really about—the tales, not the Sleeper.
The details of Franklin’s case are the stuff of lurid pulp. A seemingly ordinary man with a sweet disposition, Franklin was well-liked by his neighbors and friends, even though some of them knew about what they assumed was his biggest vice: picking up women, supplying them with drugs and alcohol, and taking pornographic pictures. What they didn’t know—and what some still refuse to believe—is that Franklin’s compulsion allegedly didn’t end with photography. A lot of his “dates” later went missing or turned up dead, and because some were hookers and others merely poor and black, the killings never became a serious priority for the LAPD’s homicide squad.
Broomfield’s tabloid tastes come into play early in Tales Of The Grim Sleeper. Given the subject matter of his earlier films, he was never going to be disinterested in a story with lots of sex and murder. But while he’s trying to find out all that he can about some of the women Franklin may have killed—with the help of Pamela, a former prostitute who knows the people and the processes involved with vice in South Central—he’s also asking how so many women could be slain, possibly by the same person, without the cops trying to stop it.
Broomfield likely knows the answer to this, or at least suspects. But similar to the wide-eyed act he pulled in films like Heidi Fleiss, Broomfield in Grim Sleeper pretends to be shocked to learn that crime and punishment in a predominately black neighborhood is handled very differently by the authorities than it might be somewhere else. He turns over long stretches of the movie to the activists who petitioned the police to track down this serial killer before he struck again. And because Broomfield’s playing the outsider, he lets them talk, uninterrupted.
What emerges is a complicated situation, not easily reduced to “the justice system is racist”—although that’s certainly part of it. Tales Of The Grim Sleeper considers how—in a neighborhood where the residents distrust the police and are accustom to looking the other way when something illegal is going on—Franklin may have found it easier to operate. More to the point, in a place where people get shot on street corners all the time, it becomes harder to define terms like “serial killer,” and harder to get the authorities interested in another missing person or another dead body. The result? Women who’ve already had a rough life become disposable.
Here’s where Broomfield’s style proves essential. Whether out of prurience or compassion, he really does want to hear about the world where Franklin lived, from the ones who are still there. There is a recurring shot in Tales Of The Grim Sleeper that seems at first artless, and then poignant: It’s of Broomfield interviewing people from inside of his car, with his son’s camera catching his subjects from below, from window-level. Broomfield lets these interviews run longer than other documentarians might, rather than cutting them down to the few lines that have to do with Franklin. These faces fill the frame, shot from a dynamic angle, as they joke and grumble and describe another day of scraping by. By shutting up and paying attention, Broomfield fades into the background and lets Franklin’s acquaintances take over the movie. In the process, Tales Of The Grim Sleeper subtly, persistently makes the case that to write anybody off because of where they’re from isn’t just an outrage, it’s damned inhumane.