British documentarian Nick Broomfield is a frequent presence in his projects, which is often distracting when he has nothing to do with them. In “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” however, the ebullient investigative filmmaker recedes to the background and lets his furious subjects lead the way. Though Broomfield remains visible throughout the movie, he’s mainly there to help frame a series of dour circumstances that have been long stuck in a murky state. He’s a capable guide, but with the right pieces in place, lets the material speak for itself.
Broomfield’s subject, the eponymous Grim Sleeper, was a serial killer responsible for murdering upwards of 100 black women over the course of 25 years in South Los Angeles. The saga allegedly came to a close four years ago, when police arrested middle-aged South Central resident Lonnie Franklin, whose case has yet to come trial. Rather than contesting Franklin’s culpability, Broomfield scrutinizes a much bigger picture buried in Franklin’s community: In essence, how did the LAPD allowed the crimes to continue for so long — and what sort of factors enabled them to happen in the first place?
This heavy, provocative topic suits Broomfield’s wandering filmmaking better than his more playful efforts, such as his recent Sarah Palin portrait. However, it also transcends the conspiratorial dimension of murder investigation efforts such as his “Biggie & Tupac” by maintaining far greater urgency.
Broomfield walks a tricky line by grasping for a bigger picture early on: Driving around the neighborhood, he encounters suspicious neighbors, some of whom jump to Franklin’s defense with rambling anecdotes suggesting his innocence. But the director’s saving grace comes in the form of an energetic woman named Pam, an ex-prostitute in her mid-forties who takes Broomfield around town and helps him access many of the local characters living on the seedier side of town.
Together, the researchers roam from street-side encounters with teenager hookers to the local crack den. As they pick up fragments of memories about Franklin, Broomfield presses for a bigger picture about the frozen state of a neglected, impoverished community that ultimately becomes something of a microcosm for the low income struggles of black America in general.
The paradox of Franklin’s mythical status among those who knew him — he seemed like a reasonable guy, but he was a sexually perverted murderer — says much about the perils of turning a blind eye. Since both the police and local politicians refuse to discuss the Grim Sleeper case for Broomfield’s camera, their absence becomes symbolic of the broader neglect at the story’s tragic core. Nevertheless, the authorities surface in archival material of news conferences, where they celebrate Franklin’s capture, striking a simplistic note that Broomfield emphasizes in the contrast with South Los Angeles’ continuing struggles.
While he’s still a character in the drama, it’s the subjects — living and dead — who tell the story. Characters come and go over the course of the production, fall into altercations with each other, and in some cases wind up homeless. As they begin to trust Broomfield’s presence, he uncovers something even more shocking than the dwindled state of their existence: With the exception of one activist who tries to put the Franklin case in context, hardly anyone questions the LAPD’s handling of the case — including relatives of victims, who weren’t aware that the deaths were linked to a serial killer until decades later (presumably because many of the victims were prostitutes, leading police to treat them with less urgency).
Broomfield’s loose, subjective approach to telling the story through his voiceover narration sometimes yields a meandering narrative. Though certainly the lack of clarity to the situation magnifies the problem at hand, it also makes it difficult to get a sense for his thesis. Still, the movie remains a powerful, gripping endeavor, mainly because the anger and frustration of Broomfield’s subjects is wisely placed front and center.
The filmmaker doesn’t untangle the mystery of the Grim Sleeper’s past, but brings tremendous clarity to the problems he represents in the present. He ends with a masterstroke of polemical fury: a climactic montage of testimonials from many of the surviving women subjected to Franklin’s twisted sexual antics. “Tales from the Grim Sleeper” concludes by offering up the haunting possibility that even if the killer has been caught, the systemic failures that let him get away with it for so long remain firmly in place.
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” premieres this week at the Telluride Film Festival, followed by engagements at the Toronto and New York film festivals. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.