“O.J.: Made in America” Operates on a Suitably Grand Scale

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O.J.: Made in America

Directed by Ezra Edelman
USA, 2016

O.J.: Made in America is the rare documentary that transcends its subject. Not just a crime film; it’s an examination of race relations in Los Angeles and the United States in general. It’s not a film about someone who got away with murder. Rather, it’s a critique of how society devalues the lives of women and ignores their pleas for help. And it’s the story of a man whose celebrity allows him to straddle racial and cultural barriers – at least for a bit. O.J.: Made in America is a grand and incisive statement.

The film opens with Simpson sitting in front of a parole board, discussing the menial tasks he performs in prison. It’s pitiful how he tries to make himself sound more important and noble (although it’s a necessity in order to appease those judging him). But Simpson is caught off guard when one of the people he’s been speaking to butts in to ask him about his acquittal for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. He clearly thought those events were behind him, but they are now an inseparable part of his legacy.

From that jarring introduction, the film goes back in time to Simpson’s childhood. It’s a fairly standard approach, with a focus on growing up in housing projects and facing poverty, but the film seamlessly cuts between Simpson’s life and discussions of race in America. It shows the context that he was born into, living in a community of African Americans who had primarily traveled from Southern states to California to escape Jim Crow. Even though Simpson grew up in a community where lynchings were rare, he still lived in largely segregated communities without access to the opportunities that White people had.

As Simpson attends USC and becomes a football star, his connection to the Black community becomes seemingly strained. Whereas athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown were fighting for equal rights for African Americans, Simpson single-mindedly focused on his sports career. When Simpson becomes an incredibly popular professional athlete, his friend set becomes primarily composed of White celebrities. Simpson is never able to leave the Black community completely, but it’s telling when he says “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.” Simpson seems to see himself as something completely separate.

The first episode mixes his football career with the racial history of the United States and Los Angeles. Episode two alternates between Simpson’s career as an actor and pitchman, his domestic abuse against his new wife, Nicole Brown, and the history of discrimination and abuse by the Los Angeles Police Department, especially the Rodney King beating. Edelman isn’t afraid to shock his audience, playing Brown’s 911 calls about her abusive husband and showing photos of her bruised and scraped face. It’s chilling to hear her screams as her husband threatens her repeatedly, particularly in light of her ultimate fate. Even as the LAPD unfairly targets African Americans, Simpson’s celebrity allows him to escape relatively unscathed despite his many episodes of physical abuse.

The third and fourth episodes of the series recount the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, as well as Simpson’s trial for their deaths. Edelman again risks scandal by showing the crime scene photos in brutal detail. It’s unlikely that people watching the trial on cable television saw the crime scene to this extent, and the images are shocking. The sheer amount of blood, and the utterly brutal injuries to Brown and Goldman confirm that Simpson, the only real suspect, must be a psychopath with little empathy.

The episodes expose the contradictions of the trial: the degree to which Simpson’s attorneys go to defend him are almost despicable, but they also do the important job of indicting the LAPD for its many crimes against people of color. Crowds of Black spectators erupt in cheers and celebration when Simpson is found not guilty, even as White onlookers are devastated by the verdict. I thought about the final act of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in those moments – an act that would be unforgivable in isolation but which is sadly necessary in a context of nearly constant discrimination. The jury quite obviously misjudged the case, but perhaps it was more important to allow a single murderer to go free in exchange for indicting an organization that had systematically discriminated against and murdered Black people for decades.

The film’s final episode is mostly spent detailing Simpson’s descent into debauchery following a move to Florida. Now a pariah, Simpson is no longer surrounding by wealthy celebrities. His new friends are rougher and play into his worst habits. Simpson spirals into a maelstrom of sex and drugs, culminating in a paranoid mission to take back some of his memorabilia from a collector in a Los Vegas hotel room. Simpson’s sentence for those crimes hardly seems just; one of Simpson’s original defense attorneys points out that the judge delivers the sentence on the anniversary of Simpson’s not guilty verdict, and her sentence adds up to 33 years in prison, possibly modeled after Simpson’s $33 million penalty in his civil suit. Simpson will be eligible for parole in 2017, but he could conceivably remain in jail for the rest of his life.

In his review of the film, Kenneth Turan compared O.J.: Made in America to other famously long documentaries, namely Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity. It’s a startling comparison, putting this tale of an athlete and a criminal against two of the most important films ever made about the Holocaust. But Edelman’s film is about so much more than just O.J. Simpson. It’s about the America that creates a figure like Simpson, and that allows him to succeed even as it puts barriers in the way of so many others. It’s also an America that is just as quick to snatch away that special status.

It’s probably wise of ABC and ESPN to have split O.J.: Made in America into five parts; it’s much easier to consume with those breaks. But I find myself wishing that they had left it as one long film. Ezra Edelman’s documentary is so assured and thought-provoking that I could barely tolerate any pauses. I wish it had lasted for hours more.

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