When you’re too close to a situation, or you’re unable to see things objectively, it’s important to gain some perspective. Oftentimes, changing the angle of something can, for better or worse, alter your relationship to that thing. For instance, your job involves filming from a high vantage point, to quite literally show us the bigger picture. When that picture involves race, fame, justice, and the most high-profile double murder case of the 20th century, it would be absurd to even attempt to achieve the kind of space and time needed to view it without hyperbole or prejudice. But if you have ESPN’s epic 30 for 30 banner, documentarian Ezra Edelman, and close to 8 hours to explore a subject as toothsome as O.J. Simpson, anything is possible.
Maybe you were like me. Maybe you thought you knew everything you needed to know about O.J. Simpson, a famous athlete and actor made infamous by his role in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown, and waiter Ron Goldman. For several years it was almost impossible to escape the spectre of what became known as “The Trial of the Century”. Having lived through the surreal experience once was enough. And if O.J.: Made in America was just about the trial, it might not have made the impact that it has with audiences and critics alike.
Edelman views O.J. through the prism of race, specifically in Los Angeles, and specifically within the last several decades beginning with the African-American diaspora from Jim Crow States to Southern California in the early 20th Century. Though California was desegregated, it was not without a deeply entrenched racial divide between its black citizens and overwhelmingly white law enforcement. For (predominantly white) people who still, two decades after the case, cannot understand why African-Americans were cheering in the streets when a clearly guilty O.J. was acquitted, this overlooked backstory is imperative. But if it was just about race, O.J.: Made in America would be compelling—but not necessarily vital.
O.J.: Made In America weaves race, celebrity, domestic violence, entitlement, media, and the law together to form a narrative thread that is ultimately about more than O.J. It’s about us. Edelman manages to humanize all the players in a way that no one has yet been able to do successfully. His remarkably candid interviews with people like Marcia Clark, Carl Douglas, Mark Fuhrman and members of the jury, the Goldman and Brown families, and others close to O.J., give us insight into how much—if any—impact the passage of time has had. The breadth of archival footage is married to a score that is at times portentous, at times arch, and consistently enhances the tone of the film, which manages to transcend the medium to stand alone as a work of art.
Broken up into five distinct episodes, O.J.: Made in America starts with a look at O.J. as a rising star athlete on the USC football team. Your camera pans over the stadium which butts up against the community of Watts, forever known for its 1965 riots which began as a response to police brutality. We learn that O.J., unlike other black athletes at the time—Cassuis Clay (Muhammad Ali), Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Tommy Douglas, Jim Brown, Bill Russell—was uninterested in the Civil Rights struggle, or in advocating for anyone but himself. He once famously said, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”He was interested in fame, and was seduced by elite white society. And by the end of his professional football career (and this first episode) he was an unhappily married man in love with an 18 year-old waitress named Nicole Brown.
The second episode paints a picture of two separate worlds: the wealthy, privileged world of O.J.’s Brentwood (a suburb of Los Angeles you show us by soaring seductively over its stately manses, manicured lawns and golf courses), and the world inhabited by black L.A. – one of random beatings, property damage, and infringements of basic rights at the hands of police officers. Inserted into this, threatening O.J.’s reputation as a “nice guy” who invites cops over for barbecues, is a chilling 911 call from a severely beaten Nicole. But there is a different set of rules for a beloved sports icon than there are say, for Rodney King, whose beating at the hands of cops ignites the tensions of smouldering resentment among the black community resulting in the L.A. riots of 1992.
It isn’t until episode three, over three hours in, that we learn of the murders of O.J.’s now ex-wife Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. You glide slowly over present-day Los Angeles freeways, which are almost strangely idyllic, especially when juxtaposed against some of the most surreal footage ever filmed, the infamous white Bronco chase. Here Edelman turns the events of June 17th, 1994 over to the people who lived it: the SWAT team who surrounded OJ’s Rockingham estate; the cops and EMTs waiting in his house; Officer Lange who spoke to O.J. while he was in the Bronco threatening suicide; and Zoe (formerly Bob) Tur, the helicopter pilot who filmed the entire thing. Edelman frames the events of that day in the context of an accidental pop cultural phenomenon. He manages to recapture the thrill of watching it for the first time but he wraps it in an uneasy nostalgia. Our morbid fascination with celebrity and death has become entertainment.
Episode four concerns itself with the trial, and Edelman makes the decision to show some of the crime scene photographs. These photographs have not been widely released before, and the response they illicit is visceral. By this point Edelman has made Nicole a whole person, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a mother, a friend. We’ve seen excerpts of her journals, we’ve seen footage of her swinging contentedly in a hammock with her daughter, Sydney, and pictures of her arm in arm with her parents. Ron Goldman is remembered by his father, and in pictures, and is given the kind of dimension the media circus never afforded him during the trial. Showing the crime scene photos doesn’t feel sensational, or exploitative. On the contrary, their inclusion feels necessary. They cut through the white noise of the trial that two-plus decades on continues to be deafening.
The final episode prepares us for the verdict and Edelman amps up the intensity with footage of the L.A. police force bracing for the worst. He shows us the stark difference of the reactions between white and black communities when O.J. is acquitted. He speaks to the members of the black clergy who opened up their houses of worship to O.J., and he shows us O.J.’s once beloved community of Brentwood where he has become a pariah. In the years following the civil trial, O.J. must pay the Goldman family $33 million dollars, and we see a man quickly descending to rock bottom. He loses his home, moves to Miami, has difficulties raising his children. He fills his days making tasteless reality television, and his nights with cocaine and wannabe porn stars. By the time O.J. ends up arrested for trying to steal back his own memorabilia and sentenced to 33 years in prison, he is a broken man. Edelman makes sure this downfall is not played for cathartic effect, he does not want us to feel relief in O.J.’s fall from grace. And miraculously, we don’t.
Throughout the film, your camera pans over different neighbourhoods, over buildings like the L.A. Courthouse, Nicole’s home, and streets where rioting and celebrating took place. These places were ordinary until a strange event made them extraordinary. The effect is haunting. We see these places differently now, than we would have five, ten or even twenty years ago. The O.J. Simpson trial changed the way we view fame, race, sports heroism, marriage, and domestic violence. It changed the media and the way the business and ethics of news is conducted. It changed us. Perhaps that is why this over seven hour film is absolutely riveting, and utterly fascinating in its depiction of an exceptional young black man in the context of a deeply divided America, and a world where privilege trumps morality.
Time has given us the perspective we needed to see things more clearly and confront an uneasy yet stark reality. The question of “who made O.J.?” is not unanswered by the end of this magnum opus. The answer is simple; we did.
With highest regards,