“The Los Angeles Police Department’s famed motto, ‘to protect and to serve,’ has rarely sounded as hollow as it does during Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, an eye-opening account of alleged serial killer Lonnie Franklin Jr., accused of murdering 10 women (and possibly many more) in South Central L.A. between 1985 and his arrest in 2010.” Variety‘s Scott Foundas: “Tales is less a portrait of Franklin himself than a panoramic survey of the sociological forces that aided and abetted his killing spree. What emerges, finally, is an urgent distress call from one of America’s many, predominately black inner cities cast adrift by decades of municipal neglect and institutional racism.”
“Nick Broomfield’s limey knight-errant act has had its moments of wearing thin—as in the terrible Sarah Palin: You Betcha!—but at its core it’s clever, endearing and effective,” writes Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope. “Shamelessly brandishing the tools of his trade (i.e., his ever-present, conspicuously dangled boom mic) everywhere he goes, Broomfield stylizes himself into a caricature of the crusading, muckraking journalist, which works well with all sorts of different subjects for all sorts of different reasons. It reassures the people he’s interviewing that they’re dealing with a professional, or else it suggests to them that they’re talking to a boob. Either way, they tend to open right up.”
“Faux naivety is Broomfield’s weapon,” writes Amy Nicholson in the LA Weekly. “He wades in deep, then slices himself up as chum. By using gentle, earnest questions, he can charm anyone. (At least, anyone who hasn’t been warned by Broomfield’s ire-inducing docs Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac, which made enemies of Courtney Love and Suge Knight.) Broomfield also has patience and an eye for the absurd. Watching footage of Franklin entering a courtroom, he notes that the man who preyed on women is clutching a Nora Roberts paperback romance.”
“Mr. Broomfield mostly keeps his showboating tendencies in check, and has found some good material,” grants Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “But it’s disappointing that he doesn’t give proper credit to the journalist, Christine Pelisek, who in 2008 broke the story that the Los Angeles Police Department had created a secret task force to investigate the case. The police wanted to keep the task force’s existence hush-hush, but Ms. Pelisek (whom I knew when we both worked at The LA Weekly) wrote about it because, as she later said, ‘I thought it was a public safety issue.'”
Oddly, in the Weekly itself, Nicholson doesn’t mention Pelisek—but at Thompson on Hollywood, David Ansen agrees with Dargis. Pelisek is “insufficiently” credited. At any rate, Broomfield’s subject is “the shocking indifference of the police, who sat on evidence for decades, and never informed the community that a serial killer was at large. As one observer notes, had the victims been white women in Beverly Hills, it would have been an entirely different story.” What Tales “profoundly exposes is the plight of underclass black women in America, whose lives are considered disposable in the eyes of the media, the law enforcers, and the men they live among. Lonnie’s former guy friends may berate themselves for their blindness to the evil in their midst, but not one of them expresses any concern for the 20 women he’s been charged with killing, or the many more who’ve vanished from the face of the earth.”
“Proving Franklin’s guilt in Tales of the Grim Sleeper becomes less essential than reiterating the continued complicity of a police state in aiding the systematic erosion of black communities,” writes Clayton Dillard at Slant. “Nevertheless, Broomfield keeps his focus with the victims, most notably in a late series of interviews that find the filmmaker adopting a mostly hands-off approach as various women tell fragments of their survival stories. In accordance with the ethos implemented, these are the Final Girls of Tales of the Grim Sleeper‘s multi-layered horror story, only there’s little sense of resolution or safety whatsoever.”
More from David D’Arcy (Artinfo), Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, B), Eric Kohn (Indiewire, A-), Gary M. Kramer (Film International), Jordan M. Smith (Ioncinema, 4/5), Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com) and Chris Willman (Playlist, B+/A-).
Update, 10/7: At Filmmaker, Howard Feinstein notes that we “learn a lot” about Franklin, “a garbage-truck driver liked by his neighbors: He kept a messy house, owned a lot of porn, lived separately from his church-going wife, did not keep his sadistic tendencies toward women a secret from his buddies. Ultimately, he proves to be less than interesting, and because they are so numerous, the dead young women end up being numbers. The real star of the show is the community, warts and all, and how it is perceived outside.”
Updates, 10/9: At Reverse Shot, Eric Hynes writes that “for all of the evident relish Broomfield has for the chase, the bum-rushing of sources, the turning over of rocks, the without-a-net-leaping into hostile environments, he does seem to be motored by real discontent, disbelief, and dismay over whatever bullshit he’s being fed.”
Eric Kohn talks with Broomfield for Indiewire.
Update, 10/10: Christopher Bell talks with Broomfield for the Playlist.
Update, 11/5: The AFI interviews Broomfield.
Updates, 12/26: Writing for Indiewire, Broomfield notes that when he was making Tales, he “came across the term ‘NHI,’ which is a slang expression the LAPD used, meaning ‘No Human Involved,’ a term police used mainly when dealing with murders of black prostitutes, drug addicts, or gang members. It’s an expression used in reference to people not worthy of full personhood, disposable people not seen as deserving of a proper inquiry, forensics, or any follow-up. This is exactly the attitude we have seen at play in Ferguson with the killing of Michael Brown, with Trayvon Martin in Florida, Eric Garner in New York, and most recently the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio—and, of course, the countless others that died in equally tragic and horrible circumstances but never made it into the press.”
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper is less polemical or argumentative than it is descriptive, almost anthropological,” writes Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com. “Yet the film’s gradual, observant accumulation of details has a singular and lasting power: you won’t forget the troubled, troubling world that Broomfield shows you.”