With O.J. Simpson eligible for parole in October 2017, there seems to be an arms race in Hollywood to tell his story again, in what is an almost ironic replay of the media frenzy that surrounded his murder trial in 1995 in the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. FX’s surprisingly strong “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” has sparked that renewed interest in a big way, with the dramatization shining a light into various corners of the trial, and the behind-the-scenes intrigues, that have been forgotten in the two decades that have passed since The Trial Of The Century. However, that series is a mere appetizer for ESPN’s full-course 7 ½ hour, five-part documentary “O.J.: Made In America.” Directed by Ezra Edelman, this epic and essential film places O.J. Simpson’s life and the Simpson/Goldman trial in the broader historical context of race relations in Los Angeles, which resonated nationwide. However, in doing so, Edelman is not creating an apology or easy explanation for Simpson’s downfall. Rather, ‘Made In America’ details how a bungled investigation, mishandled prosecution, and O.J. Simpson being less a defendant than a pawn for agendas outside the courtroom intersected and allowed the former football star to go free, and mark the final injustice to Nicole Brown Simpson, whom the system continually failed, and led to her and Ron Goldman’s violent deaths. The picture also lays out how Simpson, so long cushioned by the comforts of his stature, crashed even harder when the pillars that kept him up were unmoored by his own actions.
It’s impossible to understand the height from which Simpson fell, without knowing where he began his ascent, and the cultural climate in which his star began to rise. Los Angeles, and the country at large, was in a despondent place at the end of ‘60s. The hope of the decade was shattered by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Meanwhile, Los Angeles was seeing the very face of the city undergo rapid change, with a 600% increase in its African-American population from the ‘40s-60s. And as the Watts riots of 1965 made clear, there was plenty of racial tension simmering right on the surface.
And then there’s O.J.
Arriving at USC in the latter half of the ‘60s, he was an instant sensation both on and off the field. For whites, he was polite, clean-cut, and impressed with his athletic talent. For blacks, he was an icon and role model. And as O.J. Simpson headed into the ‘70s, his career flourished on the gridiron, and expanded elsewhere, as he became a spokesman for Chevy, RC Cola, and most famously, Hertz, and started an acting career that would continue after he retired from football. All the while, he sidestepped pointed questions about race, choosing instead to be judged by the merits of his actions, not by the value of his beliefs. But the very nature of his wealth and fame found him divorced from black culture, a divide which became more pronounced when he moved into the tony, mostly white, Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, turning his Rockingham compound into a Graceland-style playground. Outside of the bubble of exclusivity in which O.J. Simpson lived, however, Los Angeles was in cultural turmoil.
‘Made In America’ lays out in with clarity the distrust that was bred between the African-American community and the LAPD. Much of this was under the tenure of controversial police chief Daryl Gates, who introduced SWAT style tactics to a force that already had a reputation for being physically violent. Gates’ seemingly reductive analysis of the problems facing African-Americans in the city didn’t help matters, particularly during actions like Operation Hammer, a series of sweeps that largely targeted blacks and Latinos. Add that to the boiling pot of troubled high-profile incidents like the murders of Eula Love and Latasha Harlins, and of course the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King, and the stage was set for the trial of O.J. Simpson. It was no longer simply a double murder case, but a judgment on race relations in Los Angeles, and soon, across the United States.
As ‘Made In America’ delves into the trial, and the civil case that followed that found O.J. Simpson responsible for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, it covers a lot of familiar ground, but does have its own revelations too. Notably, if you ever wondered how O.J. managed to pay his high-profile, and very expensive legal team, he still managed to sign memorabilia in prison. And while Christopher Darden’s decision to have O.J. Simpson try on the gloves is detailed here, the documentary points out that the football star was arthritic. The defense planned on the prosecution asking O.J. to try on the gloves, and knowing that, Simpson stopped taking his arthritis medication for two weeks, causing his hands to swell. Edelman even makes time (arguably, too much time) to consider the possibility of a conspiracy to frame O.J., only to deftly swat it away, with help from Marcia Clark, by outlining that there is no reasonable explanation given the evidence and timelines to support any such theory. However, the biggest card ‘Made In America’ plays during its look at the trial is in showing the brutality of the murders. Viewers will see haunting pictures of the crime scene, and a detailed breakdown of how the acts were committed. If you thought this was an act of rage in a moment of blind passion, the documentary makes it clear it was a savage, premeditated crime. One made all the more tragic given Nicole Brown Simpson’s documented, repeated calls to police for incidents of domestic violence, that never seemed to be given the serious attention they demanded, due to the celebrity of her husband, until it was far too late. Looking back, one juror admits that the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial was payback for years and decades of racial inequality and wrongdoing. Another says the prosecution fumbled their case, from putting Mark Fuhrman (one of the documentary’s most fascinating interview subjects) on the stand, to the carelessness in how the evidence was handled on the night of the murders. Either way, from both viewpoints, it was systemic failure that allowed O.J. to go free — at least temporarily.
The final chapter of “O.J.: Made In America” details how the legal system, in its own way, wound up making amends for the failure in prosecuting O.J. Simpson the first time around. Having beat the system once, and dodging it the second time (the civil trial awarded the victims’ families a hefty settlement, which Simpson and his team spent years dancing around paying), the infamous celebrity-soon-turned- scuzzball, blazing a self-destructive path. It started with a new, lurid, hard-partying life in Miami, and ended in Las Vegas, in an utterly bizarre scheme to recover his own memorabilia that turned into a kidnapping and armed robbery. Finally, O.J. was caught up in a situation he couldn’t get out of. He was no longer needed as a symbol of racial intolerance, and there was no reputation left to salvage — Simpson hit rock bottom. And there was little remorse from the judge who slapped Simpson with a sentence many observers thought was far too harsh for the crimes he was actually facing, but no one could argue wasn’t appropriate for a man who burned through his second lease on life, sometimes with galling contempt (such as writing a “fictional” tell-all book grimly titled “If I Did It”).
With a wealth of talking head interviews with lawyers from both sides, plus close family and friends of the victims and O.J. Simpson, along with a tremendous amount of archival footage, Edelman weaves a captivating tapestry about a nation perhaps in denial of how divided it still was about race, and a portrait of a colossal fall from grace that’s perhaps unprecedented in modern America. ‘Made In America’ tells a story that seems too devastating to be true, but made all the more bracing because all of it actually happened.
“Please remember me as a good guy,” O.J. Simpson pleads in a recording that closes the ‘Made In America,’ seemingly giving the documentary’s subject the final, desperate word. It’s a provocative move by Edelman, but a canny one. After 7 ½ hours that single phrase couldn’t ring any more hollow. Simpson was many things — monster, abuser, narcissist, liar, phony, guilty — but “good” was hardly one of them. And in addition to the blood on his hands that he will never be able to wash clean, the other burden Simpson will have to carry for the rest of his life is that although he was made in America, he was unmade all on his own. [A-]
“O.J.: Made In America” opens in limited release on May 20th. ABC will debut Part 1 on June 11th, with ESPN airing Parts 2-5.