TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER Review | TIFF 2014

     September 12, 2014

tales of the grim sleeper review

Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac, the Aileen Wuornos docs) has a knack for stirring up trouble on the way to the truth.  His films always chronicle his own struggle to a given subject.  Even when his movies lead to dead ends, that becomes the focus of the film and often the results are better than if he’d succeeded.  However, every now and then Broomfield stumbles onto a subject that he’s able to pull such disturbing and mind-boggling stories from that the docs turn out rather spectacularly.  Tales of the Grim Sleeper is one of these projects.  What starts as an attempt to determine the guilt of a certain serial killer gradually transforms into an indictment of the justice department and a depiction of a overlooked community.  It’s a pretty fantastic little movie, provided that you can stomach it. Want to know why? Then hit that jump.

The Grim Sleeper was a serial killer who terrorized Los Angeles from 1988 to 2002 (with a 14 year gap in the middle).  His victims were African America prostitutes and all were dispatched in the same cold ways (either strangulation or with the same gun).  In 20110, Lonnie Franklin Jr. was arrested for upwards of 25 murders, his arrest announced in a lavish press conference in which the LA police congratulated themselves for decades of tireless police work.  When Broomfield initially heads out to pursue this subject, he does so with the vague idea that Franklin perhaps wasn’t responsible for the crimes and the story he ends up with is far more unsettling than that.  When the filmmaker begins his journey into the impoverished LA community, he’s first met with skepticism and has folks yelling at him in the streets.  Soon, he has them on his side.

tales of the grim sleeper review

It all starts with Broomfield connecting with a few of Franklin’s old friends.  At first they defend Franklin by essentially saying he was a weirdo, but a good guy.  Then they start admitting that he was a bit of a pervert who took photos of all the women he paid for a good time (despite having a wife) and showed them off to his buddies.  Then Broomfield connects with a former prostitute and crack addict name Pam who briefly takes over the movie.  She’s charming, hilarious, insightful, and a little odd in a way most of the best subjects of Broomfield’s movies are.  More importantly, she’s got a direct connection to the street walking world and is able to drive around with the filmmaker and get direct accounts from prostitutes about encounters with Franklin that don’t sound too friendly.

While driving around with Pam, Broomfield also meets with a group called the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders that formed when the killings started in the 80s.  Through this connection, Broomfield learns of a police force who outright dismissed the murders because they were of African American prostitutes who the cops didn’t think were worthy of their time or efforts (one of the subjects chillingly recalls a police captain dismissing cries for help by saying, “she’s just a hooker, who cares?”).  It’s through Pam and the BCFBSM that the real subject of Broomfield’s film emerges.  He’s found a community in turmoil (at one point there are gunshots fired nearby one of Broomfield’s interviews and the way everyone reacts so casually to the sound chills to the bone) that can depend on no social institution for help.  The Grim Sleeper’s murder spree may have been preying on this community, but the damage he caused is nothing compared to the way the lawmakers neglected the victims over those crimes and countless others.

tales of the grim sleeper review

Throughout it all, Broomfield directs in his usual first-person handmade style.  The crew is comprised of a cameraman and Nick with a boom mic (though this time the cameraman is his son Barney Broomfield and the film is a bit more visually compelling than previous efforts even though the warts n’ all production model remains). At this point Broomfield’s style, aesthetic, and focus are so consistent that most audiences can decide whether or not his new films are for them before watching a minute of footage. If for whatever reason the man’s movies don’t do it for you then neither will Tales Of The Grim Sleeper. However, for those of us who appreciate a good Broomfield journey, his latest feature is one of his best.  The world that Broomfield puts a lens on almost by accident is filled with strong, tragic, and eccentric characters who are always compelling. Their stories alternate from horrifying to heartbreaking.  The dead ends the director hits all revolve around the local authorities being uncooperative, which only adds veracity to the film.  This isn’t just Broomfield’s best doc in years, it’s one of the best films he’s ever made. Vital documentary viewing that will hopefully get the release and attention it deserves.

Grade A-

Tales of the Grim Sleeper Review TIFF 2014

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