Since the late 1970s, he’s churned out a steady output of important nonfiction, from “Soldier Girls” (1981) and “Lily Tomlin” (1986) to “Aileen Wournos: The Selling of A Serial Killer” (1992) to a string of successful sensationalistic peeks into the seedy side of American life, with the Cinemax doc “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam” (1995), his one box-office success “Kurt and Courtney” (1998), and “Biggie and Tupac” (2002).
The recent titles say it all: Sex, rap and rock ‘n’ roll. Broomfield, with boom-mic forever in hand, brings his trademark laid-back British insouciance and seemingly rambling investigative approach to offer more complex and complicated pictures of the most tabloid worlds.
But in recent years, Broomfield’s work has lost traction in a marketplace that is more open to docs, but far more discerning. His 2011 Alaskan documentary romp “Sarah Palin: You Betcha!” — which premiered in Toronto — may have been topical, but lacked any new revelations or deeper social commentary about its subject. And his subsequent film “Sex: My British Job” (2013) may have returned Broomfield to one of his favorite topics, but got no play in the U.S.
With his latest film, “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” however, Broomfield has deservedly earned himself a hat-trick of prestigious documentary slots, in Telluride, Toronto and New York, and a potential comeback film that is salacious, unnerving and a necessary expose about a forgotten corner of American society.
The film examines the case of Lonnie Franklin Jr., who was arrested in South Central Los Angeles in 2010 as the suspected murderer of a string of young black women near his home over a 20-plus-year period. What might at first appear similar to so many docs about wrongfully convicted black men becomes a broader damning indictment of a culture that has tolerated the deaths of so many women for so long without proper accountability.
As the film goes on, Broomfield remarkably gains the trust of several neighbors and friends who knew Lonnie, and what emerges is an increasingly guilty picture of a man who engaged in a pattern of misogynistic torture, sexual abuse — and yes, possibly murder. It’s thinkable that Lonnie may not have been responsible for all of the deaths that have been pinned on him, Broomfield suggests, but that’s not so much Broomfield’s most penetrating point: The greater crime is the community’s ignorance or even tacit permission of such wanton violence against the crack addicts and prostitutes who comprised most of, though not all of, the victims.
But as one survivor of Lonnie’s attacks shrewdly notes, “Every black woman is a hooker, don’t you know?” And there lies the potency and provocation of “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” which grimly and convincingly lays out how the lives of poor black women were deemed unworthy of the community’s attention. In one of Broomfield’s offhanded voiceover remarks, he mentions the disparaging police term used to describe the killings of prostitutes, “NHI” or “No Human Involved.”
But the remarkable if slightly unseemly journey of “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is Broomfield’s rehabilitation and re-presentation of these women. Initially, the film captures a young woman walking the street without underwear in a potentially exploitative manner; by the end, the film brings several women into an austere studio setting, treating them with dignity and capturing their heartbreak (“I was out there, but that doesn’t mean I’m nothing,” says one tearful woman. “I’m not trash.”)
Broomfield has a reputation for wallowing in the tawdry, but in his most successful films, he finds humanity in subjects you’d read about in “The National Inquirer.” Just as Volleta Wallace, the fearless mother of rapper Biggie Smalls, offers a sense of moral black maternal authority in “Biggie & Tupac,” so too, does, the terrific presence of Pam in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” a 4-years-sober ex-crack addict and former prostitute who effectively becomes Broomfield’s associate producer. Exuding the street-wise savvy and confidence of a woman who has survived the worst and lived to tell the tale, Pam provides yet another refreshing strong black female character, which is essential to not only Broomfield’s latest project, but our media landscape.
Like Broomfield’s most successful film “Kurt and Courtney,” “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” represents another one of the filmmaker’s freewheeling odysseys, “burrowing into scuzz,” as New York Times critic Janet Maslin once put it. But Broomfield miraculously withholds judgment from the pornographers, drug addicts, and prostitutes that populate his film, harboring his biggest disdain for an American system that has allowed them to live and die so ignominiously in L.A.
Already hailed by Variety’s Scott Foundas as “Broomfield’s sharpest, most substantial work in at least a decade” after its Telluride premiere, “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is both solid and scandalous enough to make waves in our reality-hungry marketplace. With doc sales powerhouse Submarine Entertainment representing the film and already in negotiations with myriad of offers, it could well pop as one of the season’s most auspicious docs — and provide a long-awaited comeback for one of the documentary world’s most dogged filmmakers.