There’s always been something irritatingly honest about Nick Broomfield’s documentaries, even when they’re not delivering what they’ve promised — Margaret Thatcher, just for instance, who was never quite tracked down in “Tracking Down Maggie” back in 1994. But in his explorations of Extreme Americana — exemplified by “Heidi Fleiss,” “Kurt & Courtney” and/or his two films on serial killer Aileen Wuornos — he’s always an unabashedly goggle-eyed guest engaged in documentary tourism, who invades his own films, uses what he can get, glosses over what he can’t, but usually manages to peel a few scabs off the mottled surface of our national psyche, and psychoses.
What the English director does in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is take a truism – that the LAPD’s relationship with the city’s minority communities historically sucks – and establish a story of lethal malpractice. When sometime-car-thief Lonnie Franklin was arrested in 2010 (and, at the time Broomfield was making the film, held without bail for four years), it supposedly brought to end 1) a murder spree that claimed a potential 180 victims, almost all of whom were black and female and 2) and a murder investigation that has to rank among the most casually incompetent in the history of law enforcement.
Broomfield’s point is that because the murders all took place in south L.A. and involved victims with absolutely no political clout, it was allowed to continue for nearly 30 years, albeit with a 14-year gap in the murders – a cessation that prompted the tag “grim sleeper.” But according to Broomfield’s narration, he couldn’t get ex-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, or Gov. Jerry Brown or Police Chief Charlie Beck or any of the other luminaries who showed up at the Grim Sleeper press conference in 2010 to show up on camera and explain why certain leads were left un-pursued for at least 20 years. Or why Franklin – who even his closest friends refer to as a “freaky mother fucker” – went unexamined as a potential suspect, despite his well-known proclivities and the fact that many of the murders occurred within blocks of his house.
Broomfield is faced with the same problem Ken and Sarah Burns and David McMahon confronted on “Central Park Five” – when officialdom stonewalls, the documentary simply can’t be as good as it might have been. But Bloomfield does seem to have a good time, and an entertaining one, mingling with the demimonde of south Los Angeles, getting ex-crackheads and hookers to expound on Franklin’s kinkiness and even his best friends to, little by little, come forth with enough circumstantial evidence to swing a conviction – if the trial ever gets going. As Bloomfield explains, the Franklin defense has been doing its best to stall. Meanwhile, a lot of victims, and their mothers, have been prevented from resting in peace.