WHAT IT’S ABOUT Produced and directed by Ezra Edelman (“Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals”), this documentary on O.J. Simpson airs as a five-part “30 for 30” series on ABC and ESPN. It includes more than 65 interviews, including with Simpson friends and lawyers, Los Angeles community activists, former business partners and many others, and covers Simpson’s early years growing up in San Francisco, his USC and Buffalo Bills career, and his post-football career. Its larger theme is race in America and how that shaped public perceptions of the trial.
MY SAY Edelman deserves all the plaudits he will get and already got for this film, which screened at Sundance and the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. “Made in America” absolutely is the book on O.J. and, most remarkable of all, a book consigned to the screen. Scope like this — a wide-angle pan across the cold, hard landscape of race and a tight focus on the most sensational trial in American history — would be rare even for a book, much less a documentary.
Nevertheless, choices have to be made — yours. This is seven and a half hours of screen time, a considerable investment, and you should know that by the end of those, O.J. is still guilty. Various established positions haven’t changed, and in some instances have hardened. There are no “surprise” witnesses forthcoming, indeed, no surprises at all. (I saw the first four hours and most of the last three; sorry, I didn’t have the time for all of this either.)
The first two parts are best, the third mostly trial boilerplate, the fourth (on the post-verdict) also good, and the last part pathetic. All journeys must end. This one basically — and appropriately — ends up with O.J. in jail for armed robbery.
Those first two parts however establish why all this mattered and mattered so deeply, and to an extent still does. They’re also a time tunnel back to a moment in our collective consciousness — a forgotten ’70s alt-reality when a hero dashed through airports for Hertz or played Nordberg in all three “Naked Guns.”O.J. Simpson — the post-racial figure embraced by white Americans — is rebuilt brick by brick, or clip by clip. The effect is dazzling, also instructional.
Edelman is also building a pair of arguments during these opening hours, although he doesn’t entirely have his heart in the first — that O.J. himself was a uniquely American creation, and someone so cravenly, desperately devoted to fame and white acceptance that he overlooked the plight of black Americans. But over the span of these seven hours, a simpler truth emerges: He was a con man devoted only to himself. In fact, this portrait is a damning one, and O.J. is not the only one among those damned.
The other argument is established by way of context. The trial and verdict could be understood only by understanding history, particularly the fraught history between the LAPD and the black community of South Central L.A. In the wake of the Rodney King verdicts, that was certainly understood at the time, but “Made in America” takes a span of history dating back 60 years — a history of brutality and open warfare — and slaps it on the screen, frame after frame, scene after scene. That’s the “Made in America” of the title, also the entire film’s emotional core, probably the single best reason to watch.
Why black jubilation over the verdict? Crime novelist Walter Mosley pretty much sums up half of these seven hours with one observation: “I think you’ll find among black people an incredible amount of forgiveness for anybody living through the pain of being black in America.”
But that’s just half the film. The other half is a bitter paradox, or cruel irony: O.J. Simpson turned his back on black America, then embraced black America when convenient — during the trial. Edelman’s film finds no solace in this conclusion, and it’s doubtful you will either. This journey is long, and the landing is rough, but it’s still worth the effort.
BOTTOM LINE Excellent, balanced, powerful, engaging, comprehensive perspective on the “trial of the century” and race. The first two parts are best.