Nick Broomfield’s latest offering may be his most restrained. Broomfield, never one to miss an opportunity to place himself front and centre of his own camera, inserting his own narrative into the stories he’s tracking, takes a back seat in Tales of the Grim Sleeper, opting to let another, far more qualified individual direct the trajectory of his documentary for him to the film’s benefit.
The HBO funded documentary begins with narration from Broomfield, who states that the documentary will explore the mythos surrounding The Grim Sleeper (Lonnie Franklin Jr.), a serial killer who almost exclusively targeted black, crack-addicted prostitutes in a comparatively poor area of Los Angeles, California. However, Broomfield discards this conceit almost as soon as he establishes it, opting instead to focus on the social, political and economic circumstances that allow a serial killer like Franklin to go undetected for over 20 years. By exclusively targeting black, crack-addicted sex workers, people who the police deemed sub-human,1 Franklin was able to operate undetected for 22 years before the police bothered to make the connection between his multiple murders, and treat it as a serial killer case. This was not, however, the case amongst those he targeted, who had been aware of the existence of a serial killer for around 20 years. By teaming up with Pam Brooks, an ex-addict and ex-street worker, Broomfield is given unprecedented access to the sex worker community in Los Angeles, ascertaining a broader image of the case, and extracting more vital information about the case in 2 or so weeks, than the police have been able to collate over the course of their entire investigation.
Formally, Broomfield’s documentary is much like any of his other films – Broomfield steps in front camera within a minute of the film opening, immediately injecting himself into the picture. His narration, as always, is ever present, footnoting every new revelation with little snippets of his personal experience. Although some have been quick to call Broomfield a hack for employing such methods, which are so far removed from the direct cinema work of someone like Albert Maysles, it works perfectly here, as Broomfield is quick to establish that he is out of his depth and that this may not be his story to tell. After a while his narration becomes a sort of secondary plotline, a story of a filmmaker out of his depth who steps aside to allow film’s primary motives to flow through Brooks herself.
Also of particular note is how cheap looking the production is, in spite of HBO’s financial backing – the film opens with screen-captured footage of Google Earth and Google Street View is a recurring motif in the film; the titlecard is a stock iMovie setting. It’s certainly jarring, and even somewhat disingenuous for Broomfield to position himself as the quintessential DIY documentarian for those new to his extensive body of work. In saying that, it’s nice to have a break from the pretty generic techno-thriller-esque titlecards of a lot of recent kickstarter-y documentaries, and there’s a sense of genuineness and warmth to Broomfield’s outing that feels absent from more sterile films like Amy Berg’s recent Prophet’s Prey.
The strongest aspect of the film is clearly Broomfield’s early realisation that a bigger story is at play than a simple serial killer tale. While the lives of serial killers are visually recreated ad finitum by true crime shows – the result of Western culture’s obsession with mass-murder – it’s rare to see a non-paternalistic documentary that tackles social and economic inequality so effectively, clearly drawing a through-line from its causes to its consequences without undermining its victims. It’s thankful, then, that Broomfield takes his documentary in this direction, although maybe unsurprising given his tendency to shirk traditional cultural narratives – Kurt and Courtney ignited widespread conspiracies about the death of Kurt Cobain despite ultimately transforming into a rumination on free speech; his first Aileen Wuornos documentary argues that her crimes should be exonerated as they were a vicious response to cycles of abuse, while the second is an indictment of the mental toll of long-term imprisonment. Most impressively, even though Broomfield is far more interested in social inequality and structural racism than he is in the specific Grim Sleeper case, his film manages to hit on all of the hallmarks of a less impressive, traditional serial killer narrative, both fulfilling his stated thesis and exploring a wider issue that is far more pressing.
On a whole, Tales of the Grim Sleeper is an impressive effort from Broomfield, effectively demonstrating why he has stuck around as a household name, despite his numerous detractors. It’s an impressive indictment of the LAPD, and the underbelly of racism permeating the USA as a whole, and a far more accomplished documentary about race in modern America than something like 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets.