By William Wolf


Director Nick Broomfield’s documentary “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” an attraction at the 2014 New York Film Festival, is not so much a murder investigation as an inquiry into the social conditions in the area where some of the murders took place. Broomfield, with his son Barney Broomfield as cameraman, prowls South Central Los Angeles and talks to the people who have known the accused killer in custody and those who resent what they say is the casual attitude of police when black women are murdered.

In 2010 Lonnie Franklin, Jr. was arrested on suspicion of his having killed untold numbers of women who have disappeared or whose bodies have been found. The case has caused a sensation, but Franklin, Jr., now incarcerated, has still not yet been brought to trial, so the ultimate outcome of the case is yet to be determined.

Broomfield’s trail of interviews include those who speak of the suspect’s weird proclivities, including women who had come in contact with him and are glad to have survived. Still, as interesting as it is to know about Franklin, Jr., and stories about him, it is more interesting to observe that part of Los Angeles and its residents. The life there is so very far removed from the lives of the more privileged. Broomfield had help from Pam, a former prostitute who is quite a character. She shows him around the neighborhoods, introduces him to various individuals with something to say, and educates him—and us—on life in the area with its largely African-American population.

Unlike situations in which investigations take place to show that an innocent person has been accused, this inquiry looks for the why of it all. There is an organization called the Black Coalition Fighting Black Serial Murders, organized to pressure police to take more investigative action when black women are killed or gone missing.

The film is deeply unsettling in its examination of this corner of society. The point is made that if there is a murder of a white woman in an upscale neighborhood, the police and press will pay far more attention. We are also made aware of pervasive drug use and alcoholism. Pam has climbed out of her former life, and her participation in the film is one of its major attributes. Reviewed October 26, 2014.


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