O.J.: Made in America

Dir: Ezra Edelman, 2016. Documentaries.
O.J.: Made in America

For nearly ten years ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30 has been the source of some of the most important docs on sports ever made. What usually makes them transcend the sports doc genre is the complexity of the subjects beyond athletics. And now, turning that transcendent quality up to an eleven in ESPN’s nearly eight hour, Academy Award-winning epic O.J.: Made in America  they have created a true all time masterpiece. It's directed by Ezra Edelman, who previously made the terrific basketball doc Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals for HBO Films, another good source for sports docs. Beyond the story of a trial, this is the story of a culture and its obsessions with race, celebrity, lust and politics. It's so rich in detail and history, it takes a couple hours before we even get to the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. 

Even within its first two hours the film stands up to the measure of greatness, explaining O.J. Simpson’s story, his relationship to fame and  racial conflict in America (especially in Los Angeles) -- a conflict he does everything he can to stay away from. For all intents and purposes the story begins with O.J. becoming a superstar college running back at USC. His life as a young black man in Los Angeles comes on the heels of the Watts Riots (or uprisings, if you will). While the backdrop of political assassinations and the Vietnam war dominates most university experience in this era, the mostly white and well-off world of USC is deep into O.J.-mania. And O.J., a kid fresh out of a San Francisco housing project, adapts perfectly. He has a million dollar smile and articulates all the right clichés, including a clean-cut marriage to his high school sweetheart, Marguerite, making Madison Avenue advertisers drool. As a pro player stuck in Siberia (or Buffalo, NY), it takes a few seasons for O.J. to break out, but when he does, he becomes a superstar player and an early icon of athlete-as-advertising-pitchman. He also dabbles in film, taking not-too-embarrassing supporting roles with the all-star casts of The Towering Inferno, Roots and The Cassandra Crossing and the solid B-casts of The Klansmen and Capricorn One. By the time O.J. retired from the game at the end of ’79, he had a number of NFL records on his resume, as well as a solid looking post-football life lined up.

O.J.’s life after football became hanging out with corporate golfing buddies and hosting BBQs at his Brentwood estate. Besides some ex-jock friends, his world was mostly that of LA’s Westside upper class, especially after he left his wife for an eighteen-year-old beachy blonde waitress, Nicole Brown. He eventually married her and had a pair of kids, joining the two he already had from his previous marriage. (A third drowned in a tragic pool accident when she was not quite two-years-old). O.J. and Nicole’s marriage was said to be both passionate and stormy, which brought out O.J.’s dark and violent side. The police were continually called to their house, but failed to prevent him from continuing to beat her up. Finally they separated, but O.J. continued to be a dominating figure in her life (and reportedly was financially supporting her sisters' and parents' lives).

The film is at its very best when describing the powder keg of racial tension Los Angeles was living through (though most white residents were unaware of it). After a history of unofficial segregation and an openly hostile police force, the early '90s just needed a fuse to blow.  The murder of Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner and the filmed attack of Rodney King by police officers moved the heat up a notch. When police beat the rap in court, the reaction set off the biggest racial unrest in recent American history. Then, on June 12, 1994, Nicole and a waiter from a nearby restaurant, Ron Goldman, were found murdered in front of her condo. That's where the third hour of O.J.: Made in America takes off from. (Unfortunately the film does not have time to retrace the entirety of the LAPD’s sordid racial history: Zoot Suit Riots, the murder of black Muslim Ronald Stokes, attacks on Black Panther Party members, etc.)

For the next three hours the trail is covered in about as much detail as any documentary before (though it could always use some more Kato Kaelin). Despite having read Jeffrey Toobin’s quintessential book on the subject, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson and thoroughly enjoyed FX’s campy American Crime Story (based on the same book), the details here still never get boring or redundant. And it includes most of the highlights: Barry Scheck’s brilliant taking apart of the police’s handling of the blood work, Christopher Darden’s glove blunder, F. Lee Bailey's cross examination of Mark Fuhrman, the Fuhrman tapes. (Johnny Cochran’s colorful and very honest associate Carl E. Douglas declared “it was pennies from heaven, we were given a gift”), and Cochran’s closing argument, during which he improvised a little ditty comparing Fuhrman to Hitler.

While the trial lasted 266 days, the jury found O.J. innocent in three hours. One of the jurors very candidly talks about her dislike for prosecutor Marcia Clark and her buying into Cochran's intimations of a conspiracy, admitting that guilt or innocence wasn’t as important as getting back at white America for Harlins, King, and that litany of police abuses. The series' first couple of hours of buildup helps to explain why so many black Americans chose to identify with O.J., even though he never wanted to identify with them and why people reacted to the "not guilty" verdict with such exuberance. The film (and history itself) is never fully able to explain why so many white Americans felt deep anger with the verdict. (Did they somehow identify with do-nothing beach girl Nicole?)

The final part of the series is O.J.’s second (and perhaps final) downfall. Now free from the trial, he tries to regain his life but is scorned by his upper-class white neighbors, loses a civil trial to the Goldman family, and is run out of his beloved Brentwood. He reinvents himself in the Dennis Rodman mold in Miami, exploiting his own image for cash and joining the more dangerous party scene of cocaine and strippers. Eventually, in 2007, he gets involved in a scheme to take back his own property (mostly memorabilia) in Las Vegas, where he is arrested and has the book thrown at him. He is found guilty of twelve different counts of robbery and kidnapping with a deadly weapon. The five minute crime gets him a sentence of twenty-two years in prison. Karma, racism, vindication, vengeance: it all comes back to get O.J. in the end. It's an amazing rise-and-fall story, told with absolute clarity and a plethora of footage and testimony. Who would have thought that the story of a poor kid from San Francisco could end up so brilliantly being the story of race and racial justice in the latter part of the twentieth century? Who knew? The geniuses at ESPN for one.  

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 3, 2017 2:24pm
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