Nick Broomfield is not an imposing figure. A silver-haired, soft-spoken Brit, he makes his muckracking documentaries as simply as possible — usually with a two-person crew, himself (running sound) and a cameraman. When he shows up to shoot, carrying his own microphone and headphones, he probably looks like a bit of an amateur. But by keeping his operation so lean and mobile, he manages to go places most moviemakers don’t go, and get the kind of footage they usually can’t grab. There are moments in his new film, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, where you worry a bit for his safety; canvassing the streets of South Central Los Angeles where the titular serial killer prowled, a group of nearby men call him a “goddamn peckerwood” and instruct him to “get y’all’s ass outta here.” But Broomfield sticks around. That’s his style.
His story begins in 2010, with the arrest of a South Central resident named Lonnie Franklin — a man who was such a neighborhood fixture, he’s right there on the Google Street View of his block. He’s taken in on ten counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, but there are probably more victims, many more, “more than a hundred women over a 25-year period,” according to Broomfield. Initial impressions from neighbors are the kind of thing you hear on the evening news: “I mean, he was a nice guy. Don’t make no sense.” (Even his troubles with the law are soft-soaped: “He did not steal cars,” insists one of his friends. “He dealt in stolen cars.”) He helped out friends and family and neighbors; how can someone like that be a serial killer?
But it seems that he was. Photos of over 180 women are found in his home, and those are just the ones the LAPD can’t identify. Not all of them are missing; Broomfield tracks down several (with some help on the ground), and they tell similar stories of terrifying brushes with a man who was clearly capable of great violence.
Yet Tales of the Grim Sleeper is not just the story of how a serial killer operated and what drove him (though it’s those things as well). It is also the story of how that serial killer managed to commit his crimes in one of the largest cities in the world, for something like a quarter of a century, without anyone in an investigative position connecting any of the relevant dots. A group of concerned citizens and victims’ family members, called the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, noted the pattern clear back in 1985, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the LAPD realized (or admitted) that they were dealing with a serial killer of young black women, many of them prostitutes.
And that’s the movie’s real topic: income inequality and institutionalized racism, a community that still hasn’t recovered from the ravages of the crack epidemic, an atmosphere where the police are not trusted, and where their eventual insistence that Franklin’s arrest was the result of “two decades of exhaustive detective work” is downright laughable. Like the best of Broomfield’s work (Biggie and Tupac, Kurt and Courtney, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer), it’s both an explanation and investigation, the filmmaker puzzling out a complicated story as he goes, dogged in his determination (in one of the film’s best moments, he continues an interview during a traffic stop, and then tries to turn it into an opportunity for the police interview he can’t quite land). And the deeper he digs, the more the scope widens.
At a press conference following the film’s New York Film Festival press and industry screening, I asked him about this quality, of these films where the ostensible subject gives way to a much larger eventual one. “I really don’t like documentaries that go in with a script,” he told me, “and you go into it and try to make the script happen. I think reality is so much more interesting than that… I think we all have an incredible debt to people like Pennebaker and Leacock, who devised and reinvented documentary to be able to tell stories in a very spontaneous way. And it’s all about storytelling, obviously, but I think with the machinery that we have to do it — I mean, either make a fiction film, or make a film that is out there, that really tries to capture what it is you see around you on a day-to-day level, and to find a film and a structure that enables it to be entertaining as well and hold an audience.”
He certainly does that. Broomfield has a knack for finding and/or showcasing natural characters, be they delightful (Mrs. Wallace in Biggie and Tupac) or repugnant (El Duce in Kurt and Courtney). Here, his ace in the hole — both as an investigator and as a dramatist — is Pamela Brooks, a former streetwalker and recovering addict who is both an invaluable conduit, accompanying him to all of the relevant crack houses and blind alleys, and a commanding onscreen presence. (In voice-over, he says they reached a point where Pamela was “basically running our production,” but he’s not being facetious; she gets a closing credit as “South Central Guide and Coordinator.”)
And it is Ms. Brooks who ultimately drive the film’s point home, in the most direct possible terms: “The police didn’t care because
these were black women. I’m a black woman, who gives a fuck about me?” Nana Gyamfi, a local attorney and activist, puts it another way. “Imagine,” she supposes, “if they’d have treated (victim) number three like she was a student at USC, with blonde hair and blue eyes.”
Lonnie Franklin has been off the streets for four years, but his case has not yet gone to trial. No one knows how many women he killed; it’s possible even he can’t guess. But more importantly, the police don’t know, because these women were allowed to just fall through the cracks. Broomfield, in his own small way, tries to correct that, and not just with the images of their crime scenes and the Franklin home, accompanied by H. Scott Salinas’ frightening, hypnotic score. At the end of Grim Sleeper, the “unofficial” survivors look right into his camera, and tell their stories. Some remain passive, stone-faced, others weep. One remembers who she was, and says, “That’s not the life I wanted.” And after their stories are told, the director fills the screen with images of the victims who cannot tell their stories themselves. With his powerful film, Broomfield fills in the blanks, as best he can.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper screens this week at the New York Film Festival. Photo credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire.