REVIEW: O.J.: Made in America [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 467 minutes | Release Date: May 20th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: ESPN Films
Director(s): Ezra Edelman

“I’m not black. I’m O.J.”

I was enjoying the summer between 6th and 7th grade when O.J. Simpson and A.C. Cowlings infamously drove a white Ford Bronco down a California interstate. Despite being only a year removed from the Buffalo Bills’ four straight Super Bowl loses, my lack of local football knowledge here in the Queen City made “Juice” just another name. I quickly learned he was one of the greats and proved it right where Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas attempted to bring home glory decades later. If I also knew he was wanted for murdering estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman at the time, I didn’t necessarily care as a twelve-year old. Once the trial began, however, America made it so you could care about little else.

It was insanity. The internet was non-existent so everyone viewed CNN’s end-to-end broadcast from the courthouse. Almost a year went by between opening statements and verdict with no one’s interest waning in the meantime. I remember my Middle School allowed teachers to wheel in televisions so we could watch the jury’s decision live. I would have been a couple months out from turning fifteen then so the notion of his guilt from those around me was vocal and understood if mostly ignored. It was a joke mocked on late-night TV and “Seinfeld” after all. O.J. was a punch line that “got away with it”. The saga ended, he went free, and I stopped caring. It was a circus—pure entertainment. In hindsight, however, it was actually much more.

You can’t just talk about Simpson’s football and movie careers or simply deal with the trial to understand how much. Doing that only tells the story of a man—a king—who fell from grace in the most public arena possible. That’s the tale of a hero turned villain who would never be viewed the same no matter what happened next (although his refusal to devote himself to charity and community afterwards hardly helped). This doesn’t get to the heart of the nation’s fascination or the myriad moving pieces necessary to place O.J. onto his path towards self-destruction. You have to go back further to his collegiate days, his outright rejection of ever being a face for civil rights, and the checkered history of Los Angeles’ police department.

This was the task set upon director Ezra Edelman after Brett Morgen‘s June 17th, 1994 only scratched the surface. The ESPN “30 for 30” series project needed to be extensive to capture the nuance of Simpson’s immense impact throughout his checkered past. An estimated five hours for O.J.: Made in America ballooned to over seven and a half in order for Edelman to strip this epic whirlwind of adulation and abject rage down to its core tenant: race. What he discovered was hypocrisy wherein the legend that refused to consider himself “black” over “man” was forced to embrace the label for survival. The athlete who balked at civil rights because his burgeoning fame afforded colorblindness others lacked ultimately became a warped celebrity poster child for that very movement.

It’s an utterly captivating miniseries (calling it a film because it bowed in New York and Los Angeles theaters to earn qualification status for the Oscars before ESPN somewhat cheapens the level of success documentaries adhering to a usual two to three hour runtime earn) that flies by with its depth and detail. Consisting of archival footage and a slew of new interviews with friends, colleagues, and pertinent players within the “trial of the century,” Edelman delivers a definitive account working to separate man from legend. We learn about Simpson’s narcissism, vanity, ego, keen branding intellect sustaining his affluent lifestyle, and carefully hidden violent rage. Comical anecdotes about grade school acts of self-preservation take on new meaning later as the public image dissolves to reveal a monster beneath.

What starts as an intriguing juxtaposition between those fighting for their lives within black communities opposite a black celebrity simply living quickly transforms into a pointed commentary on perception. Edelman spends a lot of time on the reality of racism in America even when it doesn’t overtly pertain to his subject. O.J.’s charmed life blocks away from the carnage initially opens the door to expose differences rather than similarities. He was in LA, but not in LA. He was black, but not black. So while civil rights activists dealt with the tragic death of Eulia May Love in 1979, the unconscionable shooting of fifteen-year old Latasha Harlins in 1991, and 1992’s Rodney King beating which sparked massive riots, Simpson was meticulously cultivating an image to transcend it all.

He was the face of football, Chevrolet, HoneyBaked Ham, and Hollywood with a successful turn in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! He was personable, gregarious, and iconic. So what if he divorced his first wife to marry a blonde, white model that he began seeing while still married and was known as a womanizer throughout both marriages? To many those attributes simply demarcate success and living life to the fullest. No one is perfect. But what about the underbelly the public didn’t know? What about the LAPD driving to his Brentwood estate numerous times for domestic abuse? How about Nicole confiding in friends that she felt she was trapped to the point of her family siding with O.J. if the truth ever came out?

The answer: “Oh well.” Even after the truth started escaping with a New Year’s Eve dispute leading into community service (organizing a charity golf tournament), the world forgave him. Nicole forgave him. He wasn’t a black wife-beater; he was a man who drank too much and got rough one time. After witnessing the brutal carnage of the LAPD’s excessive force on the black population, Edelman suddenly shows their ability to look away when preconceived notions move past color into notoriety. Someone like O.J. Simpson wouldn’t do those things. He’s always happy with that great smile and genial demeanor on TV. But a select few saw the sociopathic switch flip to introduce his Mr. Hyde. So select that you must wonder how much of Simpson’s life was actually real.

Edleman pretty much posits the question about whether Simpson would have been acquitted in Louisiana (where his parents lived before moving west) or Buffalo (with thousands of die-hard fans). Could his trial have then been about Nicole and Ron’s deaths rather than an inherent desire to enact revenge on the LAPD? Could the race card have been played so extensively outside of a city known for a crooked police force constantly saved by a judicial process seemingly tilted in their favor? Even though O.J. rejected the label “black”—rejected his own ability to see black—Angelenos and the country itself saw nothing else. Finally a black man with money and fame would test the system and see if the odds truly were stacked against them. The prosecution loses either way.

It’s utterly eye opening to watch Simpson’s life within the context of race and societal prejudices because doing so shows him to be as much a pawn in a bigger fight he largely ignored as he was the focus of his own. Edelman portrays this insane evolution from mild-mannered phenom to larger-than-life Renaissance man orchestrating his actions with exacting control for longevity in the spotlight to broken soul harboring dark secrets to literally becoming what he hated. A man so careful not to be anything but wholesome is transformed into a loud, boisterous cartoon post-trial with one constant: his blinding narcissism. He spent so much effort training the world’s view that he couldn’t relinquish power in any aspect of his life. So two innocents paid with theirs.

I love the little things cropping up throughout the film whether Simpson’s sports agent Mike Gilbert and former friend (and LAPD officer) Ron Shipp admitting he told them he did it or the tenaciousness of Ron Goldman’s parents following O.J. everywhere to ensure they’d be witness to his karmic fall. Edelman was afforded amazing access to the trial and lengths the defense went to create their narrative (and Judge Ito’s lax refusal to stop them) with Carl Douglas brashly laying out what they did and Marcia Clark, Gil Garcetti, and Bill Hodgman lamenting how it all spiraled out of control. The beginning depiction of his gridiron heroics is full of respect, the finale’s depiction of his “armed robbery and kidnapping” farcical and fitting in the best way.

But while the detail is commendable (the graphic crime scene photos aren’t for the faint of heart) and the care with which the facts are portrayed admirable (even Mark Fuhrman gets a fair shake to speak of his experience), O.J.: Made in America‘s ultimate success lies in Edelman’s portrayal of America as a fallible machine that chews you up and spits you out. It depicts a world in which the black community is told how to act to be accepted rather than accepted sight unseen. It shows us a world where someone who was indisputably a bad man (if not a murderer) could be exonerated because doing so exorcised a city’s demons. It’s about race being everything whether in its absence or embracement under virtuous or disingenuous desire.

It showcases the notion of white privilege, devolution of the media into twenty-four hour cycles of ratings-grabbing editorialized headlines, and fascination we have for train wrecks to sustain reality TV as our preferred mode of living vicariously through others. We experienced joy watching O.J. set records on the field. The black community hailed him as a messiah because of his crossover appeal to white America proving it was possible. And we all reveled in the macabre atmosphere of his trial by turning it into a circus far removed from its real purpose. Edelman doesn’t show us one man’s story. He instead provides a mirror to see the tale of our populace’s ease at constantly missing the point. He proves emotion will always reign supreme because objectivity is dead.

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