Dear Fellow Critics,
There have been a few distinct “where were you when” moments in my 43 years; the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, the fall of the Berlin Wall, O.J. Simpson’s Bronco chase. Some might argue that only the first two were truly life-altering, globally significant events. Until recently, I would have agreed. It wasn’t until I watched _O.J.: Made in America that I reconsidered the impact the O.J. Simpson trial had on our culture, our media, and our relationship with race, fame and entitlement. It seems especially profound since I write this mere days after the most powerful country in the world inaugurated a bigoted, misogynistic, reality television star for President.
When I first heard about Ezra Edelman’s opus I thought it was a joke. An almost eight-hour documentary on O.J. Simpson? Who the hell would want to watch that? Didn’t we already know everything we needed to know? What, if any, new information could we possibly glean from revisiting that sordid chapter in our collective consciousness? Turns out, a lot. So much that while watching it, I had to stop myself from opening my windowHoward Beale-style to yell, “Stop whatever you’re doing and watch this documentary! I’m woke as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
By some miracle, Edelman was able to take what was arguably the most scrutinized event of the 1990s and create what will henceforth be known as the definitive statement on O.J. Simpson.
But it’s so much more than that.
It’s a treatise on America itself. The country’s love affair with fame, and propensity towards deifying men who can throw further and run faster than average mortals, and its unease with accepting that these false idols are sometimes fatally flawed. Its oversimplification of the racial divide, and the magnitude of dissonance of the realities faced by its black and white citizens. Its pride in the equality of its justice system, and its inability to accept that this system is deeply, possibly irrevocably broken. Its addiction to entertainment and morbid fascination with the lives of celebrities, whom they systematically build up and tear down for sport.
The story of O.J. Simpson could have been told in any number of ways (indeed, 2016 saw another take on this subject in the form of the FX dramatization, The People vs O.J. Simpson, which focused solely on the trial and its larger-than-life participants). The artistry of O.J.: Made in America comes from Edelman’s ability to take a story we’ve heard before and not just make it new, but make it engrossing in its urgency. It challenges our perceived notions, it asks us to reject an entrenched mindset, and yet it never once seems interested in O.J.’s guilt or innocence.
The foundation of this film rests on the impact of the first episode, the first twenty minutes in fact. Without that solid structure, we would have been left with yet another maudlin tell-all at best, or a hollow retrospective at worst. Without this assured jumping off point, it wouldn’t matter if the doc was 8 or 80 hours long, it just wouldn’t work if Edelman had arranged the pieces in any other way. But he does something that is absolutely imperative to justify this framework. He does something that is nothing short of sorcery, something that seemed impossible; he makes us fall in love with O.J. all over again. That in itself is remarkable enough. But he does it after he reminds us of who O.J. is now.
The film opens on a sweeping shot of the Nevada desert, and pans to show us the Lovelock Correctional Facility. We hear O.J. in voice over, “growing up in the ghetto, one of the things I wanted most, it wasn’t money. It was fame”. The film then cuts to footage of O.J.’s parole hearing in which he describes his job as a cleaner in prison, and coaching the prison football team to win the championship. His familiar cocky smile fades to incredulity then to obvious derision when a member of the parole board asks about his first arrest in 1994, for the murder of his wife and her friend.
The gears switch to footage of a young, college-age O.J., the running-back phenom for USC whose 64 yard run in a game against arch-rivals UCLA made him a national star. The shots of O.J.’s college life - an awkward interview with his new wife Marguerite (who describes him as “serious”), stands packed with white faces cheering his name, the footage of “the run” set to a swelling, triumphant score – are juxtaposed against footage of a very different life experienced by blacks in the mid-60s. Though we’ve seen many of these images before – hoses on crowds in Jim Crow states, a little black girl being escorted to a desegregated school by the National Guard (an image that will return in a later episode), dogs attacking Civil Rights protestors – the context has changed. It’s increasingly apparent that the rise of a hero able to transcend race in this climate, who will eventually fly too close to the sun aloft on the rarified air of his own ego, isn’t just inevitable, it’s damn near Shakespearean.
This is ten minutes in.
The next ten minutes shows us the mid-Sixties LAPD, run by Chief Parker, a no-nonsense enforcer known to recruit police officers at Klan rallies. The aggressive presence of the LAPD in predominantly black neighbourhoods leads to the infamous Watts Riot of 1965. Footage of a community at war with the officers sworn to protect it, shows people running from tear gas and a tank, a man with urine-soaked pants being cuffed, a cop kicking a black man in the back, a young black man carrying a frightened elderly white woman to safety. It is stomach-churning, and reminiscent of footage of Nazis’ treatment of Jews in 1930s Germany. That the USC stadium butts up against Watts (a schoolmate of O.J.’s remembers how the university warned students not to visit the other side), is painfully symbolic, it is a literal racial divide. Closing this first twenty minutes is another white voice admitting, “I didn’t think it was a big deal. I didn’t think these people were quote “persecuted”. I was as naive as any other white person.”
The rest of the doc unfolds on Edelman’s expert framework organically, but by this point, he could have spent the next seven hours focusing on a freckle behind O.J.’s ear and I would have been riveted. O.J.: Made in America is long, and intense, and it requires commitment. As a reward for that commitment, it challenged me to juggle conflicting emotions at the same time, and reckon with them. It forced me to confront my own white, Canadian prejudices about race in America and about America itself. The best art often isn’t easy to swallow. Itshould make us uncomfortable. It should ask difficult questions. That it did all of this and managed to be immensely absorbing and ultimately satisfying is what makes O.J.: Made in America extraordinary.