Thanks to one of those odd periodic showbiz confluences—the kind that gives us two killer earthquake movies in the same year or two animated films about talking ants or two Truman Capote biopics—the 30 For 30 docuseries O.J: Made In America is hitting TV screens just two months after FX had one of its biggest hits with The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The FX series was so excellent and revelatory that the millions who watched it might feel like they don’t need the ESPN version. But that’d be a mistake. This 30 For 30 is its own animal: a five-part, eight-hour stunner, of which less than half is about the Hall Of Fame running back’s murder trial. The rest is spent on who O.J. Simpson really is.
Better points of comparison for Made In America might be The Jinx and Making A Murderer—two true-crime documentary series that put grim criminal cases into a larger context of American class divisions and the ingrained biases of our legal system. This 30 For 30 could also be lined up alongside three other major 2016 TV events that have tackled the United States’ deep racial divisions: Roots, Jackie Robinson, and All The Way, which tells the story of how MLK and LBJ’s civil rights advances both did and didn’t change the country. O.J.: Made In America picks up where the latter leaves off.
As the title implies, O.J.: Made In America has more on its mind than just those endless months in 1995 when the nation was obsessed with the O.J. trial. What makes this documentary so effective is that it doesn’t bold-face those messages. Director Ezra Edelman treats this material in much the same way he handled his earlier sports-docs, the very good Magic & Bird: A Courtship Of Rivals and the top-tier 30 For 30 episode “Requiem For The Big East.” Edelman and his editors and researchers mostly let people tell their own stories, in full, and then find pertinent archival material to support them.
Most of the points made in the series are shaped by who Edelman gets in front of the camera and how much time he allows them to say their piece. He doesn’t land an interview with Simpson himself (though he does have some recent startling prison footage), and some of the bigger names from the trial (like Robert Shapiro, Chris Darden, Lance Ito, and Kato Kaelin) don’t talk to him either. The documentary does feature Marcia Clark and Mark Fuhrman, plus two jurors. More importantly, Edelman interviews Simpson’s boyhood friend Joe Bell, who fills in a lot of information about growing up in the San Francisco projects in the 1950s; and he gets extensive comments from people like author Walter Mosley and civil rights activist the Rev. Cecil Murray, who speak authoritatively about the Los Angeles where Simpson spent most of his adult life.
Anyone tuning into this 30 For 30 to find out more about the trial should know that that the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman doesn’t get covered until the beginning of part three and that the verdict comes down in the opening minutes of part five. Those who’ve seen American Crime Story will have already encountered most of the dramatic behind-the-scenes material in the third and fourth parts of Made In America, which delve into the immediate repercussions of attorney Johnnie Cochran’s decision to make the case a referendum on the Los Angeles Police Department’s systemic mistreatment of African Americans. Still, it’s instructive to be reminded of just how riveting the highlights of that trial were: the Fuhrman tapes, the botched glove demonstration, the awkward back-and-forths between Cochran and Darden over race, and so on. (It’s also startling to see the graphic crime scene photos and be reminded that this wasn’t some fictional murder mystery, but an attempt to get a suspect to answer for the brutal slayings of two real people.)
What distinguishes the heart of Made In America from The People V. O.J. Simpson is what comes before and after it. The documentary’s first two parts artfully compare and contrast Simpson’s calculated rise to wealth and celebrity with how working-class and low-income black Angelenos were treated in the latter half of the 20th century. While Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and other African American athletes were working as outspoken advocates for civil rights, Simpson was—in a way—proving that it was possible for a black man to get a fair shake in America, provided that he give the white establishment what it wants. Edelman’s interviewees don’t condemn Simpson for forging his own path, but they do note the irony of him winning a Heisman at the University Of Southern California just blocks away from a riot-scarred Watts, and they marvel at how completely he isolated himself from any political movements.
A lot of the observations about race and privilege in the first two parts of Made In America are made by people who lived in and around Los Angeles through decade after decade of high-profile cases where the police abused its power with impunity. In the first three hours of the documentary, Edelman spends as much time on Leonard Deadwyler, Eula Love, Rodney King, and Latasha Harlins as he does on Simpson’s years in the NFL, his success as a commercial spokesperson, and his transition into acting and broadcasting. Sometimes Edelman makes a strong point merely through his choice of archival news clips, in which even well-meaning reporters use othering language when talking about Simpson—asking about his “attitude” and referring to him as a “good boy.” By the time 30 For 30 gets to the murder of Brown and Goldman, it’s effectively shown why so many saw the trial as bigger than one man’s guilt or innocence.
Made In America pushes that point further in its fifth part, which documents what happened to Simpson after he was acquitted in 1995. Before he landed back in jail in 2008—as the result of a bizarre, pathetic armed robbery in Las Vegas that probably didn’t merit the 33-year sentence that Simpson received—he spent a decade in a weird netherland, not fully welcomed by either the community that celebrated his release or the rich golf buddies he’d had before the murders. Instead, he retreated to Florida and mostly capitalized on his notoriety, participating in the reality-show culture that his trial helped create. He made a gangsta-rap video and authorized a semi-tell-all book called If I Did It. His arrest in Las Vegas coincided with the launch of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, featuring the daughters of his late attorney and friend Robert Kardashian. During the ensuing trial, Entertainment Tonight had Marcia Clark on the scene as its special legal correspondent. The media landscape has gotten a lot rockier since the age of the Dancing Itos.
As with American Crime Story, there’s a lot going on in Made In America, from an implied critique of declining journalistic standards to a suggestion that in a roundabout way justice was done in this case—in that Simpson is now an imprisoned pariah, and Los Angeles’ black residents got to take a small measure of revenge against the city’s criminal justice system. The documentary also prods viewers to consider how the national conversation about racial discrimination sidelined an equally valuable discussion we could’ve been having about domestic abuse. (One juror says the prosecution’s argument that Simpson was a wifebeater didn’t impress her because she can’t respect any woman who “takes an ass-whoopin.’”)
This film’s greatness is ultimately tied to the meticulous, dispassionate way that Edelman exposes the pervasiveness of bias, be it influenced by race, gender, class, institutional position, or just the heat of the moment. Much like the news clips from the ’60s and ’70s that have white anchors casually referring to African Americans as “they,” there’s some eye-opening footage in Made In America of Roy Firestone interviewing Simpson in the early ’90s and giving him a friendly forum to shrug off his arrest for spousal abuse. During the famous white Bronco chase, ABC’s Al Michaels seems astonished by the whole affair, saying that there’s “nothing in his past to indicate this” (besides, that is, all the times that Nicole called 911 because he was hitting her). For a time, Simpson was shielded by the identity he’d created for himself and the idea that anyone who has millions of dollars and a TV deal must be okay.
Whether it be longtime L.A. cops saying that they never saw any racism in the department—despite example after example—or Simpson defenders who seem a little embarrassed now about how happy they were back in 1995, the people Edelman interviews for this 30 For 30 weave a remarkable tapestry of sober reflection and self-justification. In the end, this is a documentary about how a picture changes depending on how it’s framed. Was the Simpson case about the fall of a beloved athlete or the death of a battered woman? Was it about how the media is too narrowly focused to recognize widespread patterns of injustice? Or how police officers often cover for their own at the expense of the citizens they’re sworn to protect? Is it about our tendency to force a narrative onto messy real-life events, distancing us from the truth?
Made In America pulls back enough to encompass all of that. It’s a journalistic marvel, assembling fact after fact and observation after observation into a portrait far more complex overall than it appears at any given moment. What emerges is a bracing look at life in a country where the way we process what we see and hear is too often determined by who we are.