Most mysteries start with an assumption: Somebody, somewhere, cares that the killer or killers are brought to justice. The mystery at the core of Nick Broomfield’s gripping, sickening documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper is of a different sort. It’s a riveting story: A serial killer initially suspected of killing ten women in Los Angeles during the 1980s, and later possibly dozens more, could have been given free reign over the Southland by a police department alternating incompetence with malignant neglect. Lonnie Franklin was arrested for the killings in 2010, but unanswered questions abound. That alone would make for a solid investigative film of the classic sort: Intrepid documentarian tries to solve the mystery behind the mystery. But what Broomfield uncovers is even more disturbing then a serial killer who could have murdered 100 victims or more over 25 years.
The film starts in typical Broomfield territory. He’s usually happy to put himself front and center on screen as a lead character and interrogator. At first, the sight of this big-eyed, grinning white British goofus bounding up to black residents of South Central plays for incongruous comedy. It’s a well-honed schtick, but a disarming one as well. Broomfield soon enlists a cadre of friendly interviewees who insist that no, no, Franklin had nothing to do with these crimes at all. His friends from the block insist he was a great guy, the sort who could be counted on for a favor or to make sure that no dealing was happening on their block. (Lonnie didn’t steal cars, one clarifies with a half smile, “He dealt in stolen cars.”) Once the interviews move from the public street indoors, though, the story shifts. The Lonnie who emerges then is a more malevolent sort, full of secrets and darker impulses.
Notably, almost all the men Broomfield interviews defend Lonnie to some degree. They don’t think he could have been the Grim Sleeper killer (that was the name given to the supposedly linked murders, which stopped for a time before ramping back up). Most of the women in the film have a different take. They talk not so much about Lonnie himself and whether he’s guilty — the film’s amoeba-like sprawl overflows such defined boundaries — but about how many women were murdered and how long it took anybody in the LAPD or around the neighborhood to take an interest. That fact particularly enrages the local activists with whom Broomfield talks, the ones seen in old news footage trying to warn young women about the predator or predators among them. For women like Pam Brooks, the brassy ex-prostitute who works as Broomfield’s guide to South Central and generates a crackling comic energy with him as straight man, it doesn’t seem like anything but the expected. The term often used by LAPD for murders involving most black street walkers or crack addicts, NHI (No Humans Involved), takes on a sickening resonance as the scale of the city’s dysfunction and inattention is clarified.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper initially follows a line familiar to Broomfield’s Biggie & Tupac and Kurt & Courtney. He wants to probe at the real story behind the official one and, if possible, expose institutional neglect and even criminal wrongdoing. But unlike those films’ jaunty tabloid nature, the mood here turns somber and then sickening. The film buzzes with speculation: How could the Grim Sleeper have gotten away with this for so long and so easily? Were the cops involved, or at the very least aware and approving of his work? (An LAPD officer was arrested at one point but later released.) The murders themselves were hardly the work of some master killer out of a James Patterson novel. One woman after another was simply taken off the street, butchered, and dumped. Eventually a more harrowing picture reveals itself. The police may not have ever bothered trying to connect the killings; after all, it was an NHI situation. Also, the South Central that Broomfield investigates seems traumatized after years of crime and addiction has ripped its social fabric to shreds. The callousness revealed in the film’s final scenes is simply heartbreaking. They rate among the most affecting work Broomfield has ever done.
Broomfield can’t answer everything. Too much time has gone by, too many opportunities and lives have been wasted for that to be possible. But it does pose a question that one wishes another film could take up: What does it mean when a society allows such systemic violence to roll on, year after year, without consequence? How long can a society that cares so little for its citizens even remain worthy of the name?