'O.J.: Made In America' Is About America, Not O.J.
It's odd to view the O.J. Simpson trial in a renewed cultural spotlight today, 22 years after the murders and 21 years after the verdicts, almost in defiance of our tendency to observe round-number anniversaries. But between FX's The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story earlier this year and now Ezra Edelman's 7 1/2-hour documentary O.J.: Made In America, we are not observing a milestone, but attempting an almost convulsive reckoning with every open or tenuously bound wound the case touched and still touches: racism and sexism, certainly. Class distinctions, especially where they intersect with race. Domestic violence and police brutality as two of our most stubborn examples of a sometimes fatally broken criminal justice system. Extreme wealth and extraordinary celebrity as weapons of distortion and defense.
Through sheer repetition, so many words are shibboleths if you were old enough to watch the news in the '90s: Nicole, Ron, O.J., A.C., Clark, Darden, Cochran, Fuhrman, Ito, Kato, Rockingham, Bundy. Other elements, perhaps half-forgotten, tumble out when the documentary jogs your memory: Paula Barbieri, Bruno Magli, that Saturday Night Live sketch where all the defense attorneys are dressed as increasingly outlandish "African" caricatures. But Edelman's eye for detail is so sharp that the film contains, along with its revelations, a contextualizing wisdom that gives it the feel of sociological exploratory surgery: painful and awful, but fascinating and ultimately in service of a much clearer picture.
In five parts — each is about 90 minutes without commercials and will run two hours during airings beginning on June 11 on ABC and continuing on ESPN beginning June 14 — the film shows Edelman's seriousness simply in the scope of its attention. It spends a full chapter on Simpson's college football career, his Heisman trophy, his rise to the pros, his transition into sportscasting and acting, and, crucially, his entrée into a heavily white circle of friends and business associates. (Says one of Simpson bringing Sidney Poitier to play golf at the Arcola Country Club, where Simpson was the first black member, "Even the bigots thought that was terrific.")
The second chapter is about the two violent histories that would collide so explosively at his trial: his history of domestic violence against Nicole and the history of violence by the police (and sometimes by others) against black people in Los Angeles — particularly, but not exclusively, black men. The third and fourth chapters concern the murders, the investigation, the Bronco chase, and most of the trial. The fifth largely concerns itself with what happened after Simpson was acquitted, only to eventually go to prison over a plot to gather some guys (who brought at least one gun) and go take back sports memorabilia he thought had been stolen from him.
Edelman draws, as only a man who has nearly eight hours to speak to you can, the connections between the story of O.J. Simpson and the history that was all around him — that's what Made In America means. There are strands connecting his case to Rodney King, obviously, but also to other cases of violence against black people in Los Angeles, not to mention the migration of black people into LA in the '40s and '50s to begin with. Edelman places Simpson's collegiate celebrity in the context of rising activism among black athletes in the late 1960s — activism Simpson wanted no part of, according to Dr. Harry Edwards, the sociologist who quotes him as offering the now-famous words, "I'm not black, I'm O.J." Those weren't just playful words: Edwards says Simpson offered them specifically as his reason for not getting involved in civil rights activism. Everywhere Edelman turns in his examination of Simpson's life, he finds something that resonated in the story that came to define that life even more than football. And it's safe to say O.J. Simpson never expected to be defined by anything more than by football.
Edelman's direction is confident throughout the project (which also got a theatrical release to qualify it for Oscars), and his expansive focus is complemented by a structural rigor that prevents pure sprawl. Other characters emerge with stories of their own. There's Ron Shipp, a friend of Simpson's who chose to testify against him and was subjected to a cross-examination he says was so brutal it convinced others not to do the same. There are civil rights activists who came to different conclusions about whether this was really properly viewed as a civil rights case. There's Barry Scheck, the defense's DNA expert, who strains to make understood his belief that what he believes as to guilt or innocence (or evidence-planting) is simply not the right question to ask a defense lawyer. There's a juror who says the group barely deliberated because they'd simply been locked up too long, and another who suggests the prosecution could have won her vote if they had "come correct." Every huge story is a patchwork of smaller stories, and what an excellent documentarian can do is both tell those stories and explain how they assembled themselves into this seemingly opaque sequence in which everyone involved seems to have done things that are hard to understand.
Perhaps most perplexing, though, are some of Edelman's interviews with friends and former friends of Simpson's, like Mike Gilbert, the ex-agent who now claims Simpson acknowledged guilt to him. Gilbert also seems to have been one of the people Simpson suspected of stealing from him, which led to that bizarre sports-memorabilia incident that put Simpson back in jail in 2008, convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery. One telling moment: the point at which Gilbert says he concluded Simpson was guilty was well before Ron Goldman's family obtained a wrongful death judgment, but says he still helped haul valuables out of the house to hide them from becoming seized assets. Why? Why would Gilbert help a man he tearfully says he'd come to believe had slit the throats of two innocent people? Why help that man hide his football stuff so that the family of the man you think he killed couldn't have even the satisfaction of collecting on their judgment?
Perhaps to understand, you have to see the remarkable sequence in which radio host Wendy Williams starts off not even being willing to say it's good to have a post-acquittal Simpson on her show and then ends up applauding him, accepting a hug and kiss from him, and admitting she likes him by the time he's through with her. Charisma is powerful and dangerous and almost literally intoxicating. It's cheap to gripe about celebrity as if it's a created, inorganic pollutant when celebrity, in many cases, while it's goosed by money, is rooted in the weird gravity of personality. And everyone who's dealt with him seemingly agrees that O.J. Simpson had, and perhaps has, that personality. (Even Marcia Clark recounts running into him years later with a strange, almost warm chuckle.)
It is only in that last chapter, when he decamps to Florida and starts making goofy, low-rent videos, that he begins to unravel in earnest. And, maybe not coincidentally, it's after his image collapses that he's locked up. Not for murder, but for being dumb enough to try his hand at armed robbery with a bunch of loosely affiliated accomplices while surveillance cameras are running.
Documentary film is analogous to painting on a canvas, perhaps, but also to sculpting from marble. It is a thousand meaningful sacrifices of perfectly good material. While Edelman doesn't have Simpson on camera, or Chris Darden, or some of the other folks you'd want to hear from, he has members of the defense team, Ron Goldman's dad, Nicole Brown's sister, Mark Fuhrman, Marcia Clark, Gil Garcetti, and all kinds of journalists and commentators and scholars. From all these people, and from the barrels of archival footage he seems to have examined, he's pulled the details that, when assembled, avoid the feeling of manipulation that comes from so many polemical documentaries while maintaining the feeling great journalism gives you that you are, against perhaps your own expectations, learning new things about events you thought you'd memorized to the point of exhaustion.
As a work of filmmaking, O.J.: Made In America is distinguished by its good judgment. In particular, rather than cover every jot and tittle of the highly theatrical televised trial, it places that trial's important moments in the context of the pressures that created them and the pressures they, in turn, created. Darden's complicated role comes into sharper focus as a black juror explains how insulting she found it when he suddenly showed up, as if she wouldn't notice they'd added a black lawyer for her benefit. Clark's revulsion at being stuck with Fuhrman as a witness builds to her admission that, essentially, she was glad to feel confident he couldn't have planted the evidence, because she had no such confidence that he wouldn't have planted the evidence.
There are those who receive any attention to this story as necessarily sensational. The word "sensational," in its "scandalous" meaning, is sometimes used against entire sets of facts, as if a real thing that happens in the real world can be too "sensational" to be spoken of, simply because it's shocking or, frankly, fascinating in the wrong way. The story of O.J. Simpson certainly is shocking. But Edelman does not intend the momentary, hushed pleasures of a lurid crime tale. He is making an argument that inside the story of how O.J. Simpson was acquitted — or maybe enveloping it — is the story of how police departments lose the trust of their communities. He is making an argument that inside and outside the murders is a story of what can happen when powerful men aren't punished for violence against their wives. He is making an argument about the effects of one person's charisma on other people's consciences. He is making an argument about the way money can be used to fight prejudice or create it — how with injustice, money can be the disease or the cure. And he is making an argument, ultimately, that although an attraction to spectacle may have given this story its initial flash, its lasting power comes from real things that people care about, with good reason.
Over Memorial Day weekend, The New York Times studied violence just in Chicago, and found six gun deaths in three days. Murder is, if not routine, certainly not in and of itself an act that would resonate across decades. A murder trial that is carried gavel-to-gavel doesn't get that treatment simply because it is the loss of two lives at someone else's hands. This one had a famous defendant people had spent 25 years rooting for in football, watching in movies, watching on television. His decision to defy the authority of a widely loathed police department by driving down the freeway when he was supposed to turn himself in seems to have endeared him particularly to those who felt that the police acted outside that authority every day anyway, and at least somebody was in a position to tell them he'd pull over when he was good and ready — and they seemed powerless or even afraid to say no to him.
In this telling, there were prosecution missteps, there was a key police witness in whose credibility even the prosecutor lost all confidence, there were flaws in the evidence collection that were exploited by a defense team with bottomless resources and considerable talent. But it was always going to be both a terrible case from which to generalize about the justice system and a great case to use as a cultural inflection point.
More than 20 years later, the Simpson trial — the Simpson story — is a vexing, interlocking tower of what-ifs that get bigger and broader as you go: What if they'd brought Darden on earlier, or not at all? What if Darden didn't let F. Lee Bailey goad him into having Simpson try on the gloves? What if the glove at Rockingham had been collected by a police officer without a history of using racial slurs? What if LAPD officers hadn't beaten Rodney King? What if they had been convicted? What if there were no riots? What if there were no racism? What if we lived in a completely different society with a completely different history than the one we have?
And, not for nothing, assuming you believe the police reports and his no-contest plea and the Polaroids of Nicole's bruises she hid in a safe-deposit box with her will: What if Simpson had gone to jail earlier for beating his wife? What if that could have actually saved her life and Ron Goldman's?
And that's not to even mention some of the what-ifs that stand on that boundary line between "if only" and "thank goodness": What if we'd had the Internet? What if we'd had Twitter? In light of Roy Firestone's obsequious archival ESPN interview with Simpson blowing off the domestic violence issue, what if we'd had Deadspin? (Nothing — nothing -- will make you understand Deadspin's upside better than that clip, by the way, in which Firestone tells Simpson, post-domestic-violence-incident, that they're there to discuss "how things can get distorted to such a point that you are portrayed as the bad guy.") And, given that TMZ reportedly bought and publicized audiotapes of the memorabilia robbery in 2008, what if we'd had TMZ back in 1989? Would everything be different now? Better? Worse?
Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made In America is a film of great patience and discipline. It is bracing in its wisdom and unforgettable in its details. It's the story of where we were in the summer of 1994, in so many of the ways that still matter the most now. And its curiosity isn't in examining how O.J. Simpson is explained by the fact that he was made in America, it's in examining how America is explained by having made O.J. Simpson.
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