Oct 6, 2014

Tales of the Grim Sleeper Screens at The New York Film Festival Tonight

Fourth in a Series on The 52nd New York Film Festival. A fifth, on the restored Hiroshima Mon Amour, can be found here: http://screenerblog.blogspot.com/2014/10/alain-resnais-hiroshima-mon-amour-at.html

Pam, Nick Broomfield's (background) guide to the neighborhood in South LA where Tales of the Grim Sleeper was shot. (Photo courtesy of the New York Film Festival.)
Some documentaries are important, and Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, screening at The New York Film Festival tonight, is one of them. But that does not mean the film is always comfortable to watch, as it sometimes skirts the boundaries of exploitation. In portraying the case of Lonnie Franklin, Jr., a Los Angeles serial murderer, the filmmaker worked with a small crew to produce a “high concept” documentary; it features America’s favorite evildoer police department, the LAPD, in one corner, and disenfranchised Blacks in the other. Broomfield maps a community devastated by crack cocaine, unemployment and poverty, and then skillfully employs a former drug addict, Pam, to garner the trust of people who could tell the story of these brutal crimes.

Broomfield, best-known for Aileen Wuornous: The Selling of a Serial Killer (2003), lingers just a bit too long throughout the film on pictures of the bodies of Franklin’s female victims, and on conversations with misogynistic men who harbor some admiration for the serial murderer for ridding the streets of drug addicts and prostitutes. Two of them blame Franklin’s first wife for his misogyny, and Broomfield blames crack cocaine instead of women-hating men who spend their evenings looking at pornography and sometimes producing it, as Franklin did. Given recent history, the filmmaker does not need to work too hard to convince us of the racist and misogynistic culture at the LAPD. What Broomfield gets right in Tales of the Grim Sleeper (the serial murderer’s monicker) is the plight of women who are living in that borderline neighborhood—their lack of opportunity, as well as the indifference of law enforcement and the courts in investigating and prosecuting crimes against them.

Lonnie Franklin had been murdering women since the 1980s and although the LAPD either interviewed or arrested people who could testify to his guilt, and recovered a van which he used to pick up and/or murder his victims, it would not be until 2010 that he was arrested. The strongest moments in the film are when Broomfield speaks to two different women activists; one instructed her teenage son, who is Black, never to call 911 if he sees trouble because, she explains, there is the likelihood that he would be victimized under those circumstances. In some ways, Tales of the Grim Sleeper plays on white, liberal guilt, seeking the outraged response that, for instance, The Central Park Five (2012) did, with similarly scant insights. In other ways, it paints a picture of an America most of us, regardless of our race, rarely witness except through documentary film. Whatever you think of Broomfield’s movie, it will spur debate, as it did today among film critics. That, in fact, is what all documentaries should do.