Access and detail are the best reasons to watch O.J.: Made in America, ESPN’s five-part, 7.5-hour documentary about the disgraced football superstar. Debuting Saturday, the story that director Ezra Edelman, the son of a civil rights activist, tells about Simpson is fairly similar to the one recently spun by FX’s superb courtroom drama The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. With race and fame as his primary focal points, Edelman explains and critiques the anointment of Simpson as a symbol of anti-black police injustice despite the athlete’s lifelong pattern of disavowing and distancing himself from African-American causes. Especially after the acquittal of four white LAPD officers for the beating of the unarmed Rodney King, black America didn’t just need hope — it needed a win. The question is whether it ever got one.
Spanning Simpson’s life from his high-school years in the San Francisco slums to his current incarceration in a Nevada prison for a 2007 armed robbery, Made in America contextualizes its subject’s celebrity and infamy within the centuries-long African-American struggle for justice. Edelman is a tiny bit unfair to Simpson in repeatedly hammering the then-young athlete’s refusal to align himself with progressive causes — many people of all races didn’t speak out publicly during the civil rights movement. But the irony — mostly unacknowledged during Simpson’s double-homicide trial — of the athlete/actor’s status as the public face of police oppression serves as a keen reminder to select political symbols and battles carefully.
Made in America is a visual boon for those of us who hadn't known Simpson before “the trial of the century.” Edelman has assembled a wealth of archival footage and astonishingly intimate personal photos and videos, as well as candid interviews with a great many people from Simpson’s multiple lives that transport us back to the height of his career. The USC videos of Simpson as a rising superstar, handsomer than most actors, reveal a canny strategist both on and off the field. Over the course of the documentary, he is unmasked by former friends and acquaintances as a charismatic narcissist. Later, Edelman lets 911 calls uncomfortably play on as Simpson beats and berates his wife Nicole Brown. (The doc thankfully spares us from the possibility that Simpson didn’t do it.) When a home video shows an initially jubilant Simpson, finally home after months in jail, screaming at District Attorney Gil Garcetti through the TV, it’s impossible not to wonder how much, and which parts, of his rage are genuine.
Made in America is also a treasure trove of gaspingly honest interviews, with an endless supply of statements and descriptions that perfectly capture the speakers’ thoughts and idiosyncrasies. One of Simpson’s friends jokes that the O.J.-Nicole marriage was a kind of “reverse slavery,” and a female journalist recalls the ex-athlete once saying, “If I killed her, it had to have been because I loved her very much.” The moving rant by the Jewish Fred Goldman, father of fellow murder victim Ron Goldman, at lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran for bringing up Hitler during his closing statement — the lawyer falsely argued that Simpson was pilloried as if he were the genocidal dictator — would be shared and meme-ified and plastered all over social media if it happened today. A former friend of Simpson quietly and chillingly notes of the blood-drenched murder scene, “He left the kids upstairs to walk out and find their mom like that.”
Other times, Edelman simply gives his interviewees plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. Juror No. 9, an elderly African-American woman, boasts with a shocking lack of empathy, “I lose respect for any woman that takes an ass-whuppin' when she doesn’t have to,” implying that Brown is to blame for the violence done to her. But the one who embarrasses himself over and over again is, unsurprisingly, the racist cop Mark Fuhrman, who blames Judge Lance Ito for “allow[ing] race into this trial,” wants credit for not calling people the n-word to their faces, and declares that Rodney King would never have been beaten if the LAPD hadn’t outlawed chokeholds — yes, the same illegal technique that led to the death of Eric Garner.
Made in America is extraordinarily cogent and comprehensive when it chronicles the justified fury that many blacks felt against police racism. In a series full of insights, none are perhaps more historically revealing than Garcetti’s admission that he, like most of Los Angeles’s white leadership, was taken aback by the frenzied black support for The Juice. (Simpson was suicidal when he finally entered police custody after leading multiple squad cars on an hours-long police chase. Still, he had the wherewithal to sneer at the African-American supporters who followed him home: “What are all these niggers doing in Brentwood?”) Simpson’s trials in the courtroom and in the media are endlessly fascinating, as the documentary suggests, because of the contradiction between who he was and what people needed him to be. Simpson had hoped to “transcend” race through class and celebrity. But his best defense — that Fuhrman had planted evidence — turned out to center around his race and racism. And, confess a couple of his black advocates, with various degrees of discomfort, they didn’t mind using his case to further the fight for civil rights.
But, as American Crime Story brilliantly illustrated with its sympathetic Marcia Clark, the murder trial wasn’t just about race. It was as much about gender, especially about our domestic-violence culture. To be fair, Made in America in no way minimizes Simpson’s abuse of his wife: We see a series of Polaroids from different years with her face bruised and swollen, journal entries that say that Simpson “beat [Brown] for hours as [she] kept crawling for the door,” and a graphic photo in which Brown, her head nearly severed, just has a gaping, bloody hole where her neck used to be.
But there’s virtually no larger analysis of partner violence as a societal affliction — glaring in a documentary that traces the LAPD’s racism back to the ‘30s — and hardly any mention of the sustained gendered slurs against Clark as a “bitch” and Brown as a “slut.” (Again, a point The People v. O.J. drove home often and well.) Most of the talking-head interviewees are older men, and if Edelman asked them if Simpson also beat his first wife or why they continued to be friends with a man they knew to be a batterer — once simply because Brown had let a gay friend of hers touch their child (Brown wondered if it had something to do with Simpson’s father’s homosexuality — a bizarre scapegoat for her then-husband’s violence) — he doesn’t include their responses.
Edelman shows restraint and thematic coherence by not delving too deeply into the media sensation that the trial became. But that also leaves out a huge part of the gendered reception of the trial, not only in glossing over the relentless sexism aimed at the women involved, but also how domestic violence became horrifyingly incidental, at least in the minds of many, to the trial it made happen. Simpson’s abuse of his wife was incontrovertible — unlike in the celebrity domestic-abuse story happening right now, he never denied it, though he did call himself the victim of Nicole’s violence to his friends. (Also never mentioned in the doc: the 12-year age gap between the couple and the 100 or so pounds that the former football player must have had on his wife.) The willful blind eyes of Simpson’s friends and defense attorneys, the eager indifference of the media to his history of domestic violence, the women desperate to be with the aging athlete after the trial, and this documentary’s passing attention to this urgent issue as a nationwide scourge — they’re all painful and incontrovertible evidence of our domestic-violence culture.
The final segment chronicles, with tiring dedication, Simpson’s seedy post-trial spiral and the Vegas robbery that finally landed him in prison. (He’s eligible for parole in 2017.) But my mind kept wandering during the extensive chronicling of that latter crime: Has anything changed? We’ve gotten better at talking about race and gender, but the legal system, sadly, doesn’t seem to have caught up. Made in America is about O.J., sure, but it’s also about progress — how difficult it is to achieve, and how important it is not to confuse symbols for the real thing.