Back in February, I was caught up in the O.J. Simpson craze sweeping the nation. The Ryan Murphy produced “People vs. O.J. Simpson” had just debuted on FX and received nearly universal praise. The series followed trial of Simpson for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and waiter/model Ron Goldman. Part of what made the series so popular was its ability to tap into the frustrations of race relations in American, and the circus aspects of the trial that lasted from 1994 to 1995. The trial and the controversy surrounding it, obviously still holds a place in the popular imagination. With that in mind, it is far from surprising to find out Murphy was not the only individual creating a series based on the infamous trial.
Last week, ESPN’s 30 for 30 films series released a five part miniseries, “O.J.: Made in America.” The series chronicles OJ’s life before the murder trial, the trial itself, and his life after the trial. Following in the strong tradition of excellent documentaries, Ezra Edelman has crafted another great series for the sports giant. Edelman (who also directed “Requiem for the Big East”), is able to deftly craft a series that expertly examines the events in the context of the city of Los Angeles.
The five part series breaks down into five strong episodes addressing different aspects of Simpson’s life. I believe parts 1 and 5 are the strongest of the series, and does an excellent job to establish the myth-like stature that surrounded “the Juice” when the murder case broke into the public consciousness. Edelman truly starts at the beginning, threading O.J.’s spectacular collegiate career at USC into a larger story of the civil rights movement in Los Angeles. The episode also shines a light on Simpson’s personal relationship to his race, the community he grew up in, and the latent homophobia that existed within his family. The episode concludes by showcasing his 2000 yard season for the Buffalo Bills, cementing his prowess as an athlete.
As the series progresses, Edelman and his team of editors continually follow threads in the narrative that seem to be unrelated to the story. However, it is often in these moments that the series is most effective. Edelman is able to expertly place Simpson’s legend and infamy into the history of Los Angeles. The city was at a tumultuous time when the OJ trial began, and the event only seemed to exacerbate race issues in America. The divide is well chronicled by Edelman, and the footage provided showcases reactions to the case from around the world.
Edelman is really at his best when his team is building up the legend of OJ in part 1, and the fall of OJ in part 5. The bookends establish OJ as the imperfect American hero due to his lack of involvement in Civil Rights. In many ways, pre-trial OJ becomes the model for Michael Jordan in the 1980s and 90s. However, part 2 establishes his relationship with Nicole, while furthering the downward spiral of the LAPD. These create a narrative going into the trial that ultimately pays off in part 5, the conclusion of the docu-series.
What is so remarkable about the way that Edelman crafts part 5, are the ways in which Edelman is able to showcase Simpson’s cluelessness. When the goodwill towards Simpson disappeared, the icon began to crumble. The civil case is brought to a conclusion, and Simpson is left scrambling. In another context, Simpson’s tale is one of tragedy and sadness. However, Edelman does a strong job of reminding the audience of Simpson’s past, and future, transgressions. This is not the American hero anymore, but instead a shell of the man.
The footage assembled in this documentary is stunning, not only on the sheer amount of footage, but also the high quality produced. It is brilliantly woven together like a tapestry by the three editors, Bret Granato, Maya Mumma, and Ben Sozanski. While most of the footage is from interviews and recordings, there is a questionable moment in part 4, where Edelman chooses to showcase the murder scene. While the actual choice to show the scene is far from a surprise, the use of the images of Nicole and Ron is jarring to say the least. The images have been available for some time, but the brutality is still a wakeup call for the events that occurred. While the trial became a circus, focus was lost on the extremely brutal murders that occurred in Brentwood in 1994.
Edelman is able to tap into something unique here that the “People vs. OJ” series could not accomplish. While the two pieces were produced at the same time, they have little to say about each other. I believe that they are able to operate on two separate corners, with one exclusively focused on the murder trial, while the documentary is seeking an understanding of OJ’s place in history for race relations and Los Angeles. In doing so, they are unique pieces of art that can co-exist regardless of overlapping content.
If “OJ: Made in America” is the last piece of entertainment centered on the infamous man, that would be surprising to say the least. However, it is a brilliant addition to the ongoing story. It is well worth the 7.5 hour watch time, even if you are only tangentially interested in OJ the man. Some may come away from the series sympathetic for OJ, while others will be hardened in their resolve. At the end of the day, the series gives its audience the facts and information needed to peek into the story, but ultimately reminds us of another sad chapter in America history.