The trial of O.J. Simpson for the brutal murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman – the most televised in history – is one of the defining moments of the 1990s. There have been plenty of O.J. documentaries since, including last year’s worthy TV dramatisation The People v. O.J. Simpson. But none, frankly, have come close to the depth, balance, and comprehensiveness that the five-part, 467-minute O.J.: Made in America reaches. Not only is this the best O.J documentary by some distance, it is also one of the best documentaries you’re likely to see this year.
Context is key to Ezra Edelman’s film. From the presentation of the evidence of the trial, to Simpson’s place in American popular culture, and the racial politics of 1990s LA, Made in America is meticulous in its reconstruction and analysis of the trial’s meaning beyond the particulars of the case. Beginning with O.J.’s career as a college football star in the 1960s, Edelman paints Simpson as a charismatic and ambitious loner, uninterested in being a high-profile face of the Civil Rights Movement but happy to benefit from its gains. Surrounding himself with cronies and yes men, it’s clear that from the start, Orenthal James was only ever out for himself.
An early anecdote of O.J.’s rise is telling: when dining with a group of mainly black friends, Simpson overhead a white diner at another table ask her companion, “what’s O.J. doing with all those niggers?” Where one might expect anger, O.J. was only delighted that his race had become invisible, even amongst people comfortable with using such epithets. To be seen as an athlete first is of course an entirely understandable aspiration, made ignoble by O.J.’s apparent willingness to throw his black brothers and sisters under the bus to achieve it.
It’s Made in America’s breadth that is perhaps the documentary’s most impressive achievement, taking several hours to get to the trial itself, working through O.J.’s career and stratospheric celebrity, his abusive marriage to Nicole, and most powerfully, the deep racial divisions of 1990s Los Angeles. For such a well-worn tale, Edelman finds new wrinkles in familiar beats – the unhinged Bronco chase, the show-boating of defence lawyer Johnny Carson, the disgrace of racist cop Mark Furhman. In doing so, the film ensures that the trial is seen as part of a wider narrative that was as much to do with race relations as it was a murder case.
In Edelman’s hands, the charismatic, narcissistic, and deeply troubled figure of O.J. Simpson is less an individual and more a locus for the American psyche, a focal point to understand the profound divisions and tensions in the US. The evidence of O.J.’s guilt is so overwhelming that it can almost be taken as given, so the documentary’s job is instead to explain how such a miscarriage of justice could possibly have happened. Stopping short of justifying the verdict, Made in America’s most potent success is its portrayal of the depth of public feeling for the case.
The trial became an emblem of the treatment of black people in the American justice system, further complicated by O.J.’s celebrity and vast wealth. In the context of Rodney King, economic deprivation, and decades of abuse at the hands of the institutionally-racist LAPD, who could deny the jubilation at O.J.’s acquittal, much less the anger at the 33-year sentence he later received for a bungled robbery? As a true crime documentary, O.J.: Made in America is gripping, but as a study of American society, it is disturbing, tragic and essential.
O.J.: Made in America is out now on DVD and Blu-ray. amzn.eu/4dalGon
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell