Nick Broomfield has been getting to the bottom of society's underbelly since the 1970s. Flinging himself into his films, he's exploited his bumbling British charm to get intimate access to the likes of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, Death Row kingpin Suge Knight, and white supremacist Afrikaner Eugene Terre'Blanche. He's made formidable friends and powerful enemies.
His new film, Tales Of The Grim Sleeper, investigates alleged serial killer Lonnie Franklin Jr, who's currently awaiting trial, accused of murdering 10 women, and thought to have been responsible for the deaths of up to 200 women who disappeared between 1985 and Lonnie's arrest in 2010. Many were prostitutes, and Broomfield's film questions why it took so long for police to arrest Lonnie, and why the community was not informed – despite evidence – that there was a serial killer on the loose in South Central LA for 25 years. Both a gruesome exploration of a murderer and a damning portrayal of a community left to rot, it's horrible, emotional stuff, but also an illuminating window into a misjudged world. I called Nick at home in LA.
VICE: In terms of highlighting how this community has been treated and discarded, your film is really sad.
Nick Broomfield: Yeah, and they are incredible people. You never really know what these films are gonna be like. The last one with Sarah Palin was misery. This one was actually a lot of fun. I really enjoyed hanging out with people like Pam [a very funny ex-crack addict and prostitute who befriends Broomfield and shepherds him around South Central].
A lot of people in it I'm sure will be my friends for years to come. It was a pleasure hanging out with them and seeing the city through their eyes. A city I've lived in for a long time, but I'd never really got into South Central before. A lot of my friends too have never been to South Central, and when they saw the film they thought, "Wow, these are incredible people, why have we just assumed we're gonna get shot as soon as we get into South Central." It's really not the case.
You've said that you felt completely secure, but there are scary moments in the film. At one point someone warns you that you're gonna get beaten up, and another time a gunfight erupts around the corner. Were you ever thrown off guard?
I think sometimes people who live there emphasise the drama because they know that's what people expect. People have their own agenda for misrepresenting what's true. The shooting thing, yeah, as a white person, the awful truth is you're not gonna get shot in South Central. Because then the place would get closed down. You can shoot a gang buddy and no one's gonna really raise too many questions, but shoot a white journalist downtown? Forget it. The whole city will come in.
That's what this whole story's about really. You've got 200 black women disappearing over a 25 year period and it's not even reported in the LA Times. You've got a sort of mini-genocide going on and it just doesn't penetrate because America's so racially-divided. The lack of opportunity for poor black people has got even worse than it was 30 years ago.
And what's your take on that situation developing alongside Lonnie's story – the emergence of crack in the 1980s and theories about the CIA's possible hand in it all?
I think it's absolutely correct. It's such a big subject that I didn't feel I could do it in a five minute bit of the film. But I did in fact interview all these people who were involved in it, all these crack dealers. A lot of people had got put in prison, all of whom said that they were working with people in the government and the CIA were involved. Maxine Waters, the South Central congresswoman, is completely convinced that the CIA introduced crack to the gangs, who then distributed from South Central across the country. And of course the awful thing is that the epidemic still continues there, it's never been dealt with. It's always been treated as an individual problem.
Your film humanises a demographic – it puts faces to statistics. Was that an intention going in?
I think so. And it was just our experience in making the film too, we came across all these incredible people who were full of humour and insight as well as having had incredibly tough lives. And you can't help wishing they'd had a better turn of things. It's incredible that someone like Pam who's gifted and intelligent still really can't get a proper job, she struggles every month to make the rent. I think she'd make an amazing drug counsellor, it's one of the things we're trying to help her to do. She had a lot of fun with us, we all liked hanging out together. I think she misses not working on the film.
How is she handling her new-found fame?
I think she's really enjoying it. There was a big picture of her in the LA Times and she said, with tears in her eyes, "I thought the only way I'd ever get into the newspaper would be my obituary." That was so moving. So I think it's been great for her. And I feel a bit guilty and responsible because she's still struggling to make the rent. It's very difficult for people on a certain social grouping to make ends meet.
It's inferred in the film that Lonnie thought he was cleaning the streets. Like some sort of uber Travis Bickle. What do you make of his son's assertion that there were cops in awe of what Lonnie was allegedly doing? Do you think that's true?
Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. LA is famous for being a white police force which is sort of organised on a paramilitary basis. It's a teeny police force but a lot of air cavalry that really don't have anything to do with community. I think there have been attempts to change that a bit but there is still such an endemic racism in the police force. Not just the police force, it goes back to the whole way in which the city was conceived and organised, there always have been black areas... Latino people have come into those areas too, but there are still black parts of the city that white people don't go into. And I think that's a big inherent problem and the police force kind of represents that outlook. They're answerable to politicians.
And the other thing that's completely fucked is that most black politicians do not represent their neighbourhood. They're kind of bought by other groups who need them to support them. Bought by the white establishment. And because the black community is so badly organised and doesn't really have any money, most black politicians don't really cater for them.
And a lot of the people can't vote anyway, if they're felons.
A lot of them can't vote. It's hard to know where to start. It's a multi-layered problem. These people are very disenfranchised.
You worked on the film for a year and a half. What was it like last year seeing the Michael Brown and Eric Garner situations flare up while you were making it?
It was really exciting. Because I think it's all part of the same thing. What was encouraging about it was that there is a movement, and it's a movement attracting white people – when all those doctors lay down as well, protesting – that was a sign that it's not just the black community who are protesting. There's a bigger awareness that there's an endemic racism that's completely unacceptable.
Tales Of The Grim Sleeper is in UK cinemas now, with accompanying Nick Broomfield Q&As taking place in select Curzon and Picturehouse cinemas.
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