Things I’m thankful for today:
- Being confronted with my fears. I’m not out of the woods, and I likely won’t escape unscathed, but I do know somehow this is good for me.
- The thunderstorm this morning.
- My wife, who is finely attuned to when I’ve had a rough day and makes this home even more of a sanctuary than it already is.
When loading up my Netflix queue with Oscar nominees, my jaw hit the floor when I saw that one nominee for best documentary feature, O.J.: Made in America, covered five DVDs. This was not a feature film. This was a miniseries. I had to check to make sure it hadn’t merely been nominated for a Golden Globe or an Emmy, but no, this was a documentary feature, the longest movie ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. The total run-time clocks in at nearly eight hours. I decided this film would not take up space on my DVD queue, especially as we’re on the two-at-a-time plan and it takes us forever just to work through one movie. (We average about a week and a half per disc, thanks to the kids.) Streaming services are much more feasible, as I can stop and start at will without concern that the kids will take out my DVD and insert one of their own while I’m at work, which makes me lose my place, thereby destroying all this couch potato’s progress and deflating his spirit. After O.J.: Made in America won the Oscar, I was very pleased to discover it was streaming on Hulu. I put it on the watch-list and determined to peck away at it. My verdict? I would easily spend another eight hours watching director Ezra Edelman’s masterpiece, one of the greatest documentaries I’ve seen.
The film’s success isn’t due to its main character. That may be enough to draw us in, especially those of us who remember the bizarre slow-motion freeway chase of O.J. on live TV and the ensuing trial that dominated the airwaves for the better part of a year. But like myself, you may still be feeling O.J. fatigue and ask yourself, “Why bother?” You should bother with this film because it’s not just about O.J. It’s about every conceivable facet of late 20th century American life that either was affected by the “trial of the century” or was a factor contributing to how we felt about it. Wherever you stood, whether you thought O.J. Simpson was innocent of the murders he was accused of committing and was framed by a corrupt police force, or whether you thought he was guilty as sin, this film is for you, and it is about you.
I was in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on vacation with my family, when the chase took place. We were eating at a restaurant with a bar and a giant television we could see from all the way across the dining room. We saw the Ford Bronco and the captions telling us what was going on. The TV was muted. The moment is only etched on my memory because of the media saturation that ensued. At the time, I was probably more excited about the crab legs or oysters I was about to demolish. I was about to begin my freshman year of high school.
I was a sophomore when the verdict was read. It was during my lunch period, and the teachers had wheeled in a big-screen TV so we could watch it live. The lunch room was way too loud to make anything out, and when the jury declared O.J. innocent, the noise that erupted from the tables closest to the TV prevented me from determining whether he had been convicted or not. It wasn’t until I arrived in my history class immediately after that I found out. Our teacher thought it would be a good exercise to have us write down, anonymously, our reactions to the verdict and pass our notes forward. There were no black kids in my class, which, along with the anonymity, seemed to allow many of my classmates the freedom to use the n-word in their assessments. The teacher skimmed through a few of them, and when he was ready to speak, it wasn’t to address the issue of O.J., but the racism that had arisen in our comments. He confronted us about this, and some students brazenly said, “It’s freedom of speech, man,” stupidly identifying themselves as the culprits, bless their hearts. O.J. was cast to the side. This was about race, now. (For record, I didn’t have very strong feelings, but I decided to go for laughs, in case my note was read, so I said, “That dude was so guilty it’s not even funny. I’m going to burn down my house now, I’m so ticked.” It was read out loud, the class laughed, and I owned up to it. I didn’t mean a word of it, not even that I thought he was guilty. I had no idea, and I assumed justice had been done somehow.)
O.J.: Made in America is about race, as it should be, but it’s about so many other things. It’s about the strange godhood of celebrity, how fame can overcome matters of race, and not in a good way. It addresses how racial issues in general in Los Angeles had been building over several decades to become a major factor in the defense’s vilification of cops like Mark Fuhrman, especially focusing on the Rodney King riots. It focuses on Simpson’s relationship with and history of abuse of estranged wife Nicole Brown. It recounts the infamous decision by Christopher Darden to have O.J. try on the gloves, which the defense knew was coming. All the major points of the case are explored with the healthy scrutiny of 20/20 hindsight, and Edelman makes many connections we may not have considered before.
The interviews are compelling and revealing, woven into the overall narrative of Simpson’s life and painting the portrait of a man who was very much manufactured by his own celebrity and what people thought of him. In fact, he was a major contributor to his own manufacture, from his USC days onward. Part one especially explores Simpson’s unprecedented talent on the football field, and there’s no denying he’s one of the greatest who ever played the game. This is a part of what made the man, and it must be considered.
I can applaud many, many things about this documentary, but what I perhaps appreciate most about it is that Edelman gives Nicole Brown her due, as well as Ron Goldman. When the trial began, we quickly lost sight of the fact that two lovely people were brutally murdered. These were people with families and friends who loved them and cared for them deeply. We learned to define them only as they related to the overall circus. I’ve always hated this about the Simpson case, and I think Edelman has, too. He does not shy away from the details of the murders, including unspeakably grisly crime scene photos that most of us have probably never seen because if we had, we wouldn’t have been so cavalier about the trial. We wouldn’t have laughed about it like we did. Heck, many of us who thought O.J. was framed just might have been persuaded that he’d done it, if we had seen the photos. You can’t come away from them unscathed. Consider this a warning: The pictures are very hard to look at, especially since Edelman reveals them after we have already come to a better understanding of Nicole as a woman and mother with her own loves, fears, hopes, and dreams. I was shocked at how young she was when she began dating O.J. She was barely an adult and could not have had a full comprehension of what she was getting herself into. She was practically a little girl. It’s heart-breaking.
Edelman seems to think O.J.’s guilty, but he doesn’t let himself off the hook. As should we, he arrives at his conclusion after exhaustive consideration of a multitude of factors, including the history that shaped our society at the time of the trial. The documentary doesn’t stop with the trial. It goes on to present the civil case in which O.J. was found liable for Brown’s and Goldman’s deaths, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Edelman explores O.J.’s later life in Florida, his bizarre vaudevillian mockery of his own celebrity, and the incident in Las Vegas that ultimately landed him in prison, with a sentence far more severe than it should have been. It’s a strange, karmic corruption of justice that he receives, for a mere assault (if you could even call it an assault), a sentence that’s more commensurate with the horrible crimes he had been acquitted of.
There is so much more to this documentary, but to go on would probably take away the fascination and intrigue of watching it for yourself. I did not feel the passage of time, epic as it was. I hope Edelman continues to make documentaries, and that they examine their subjects as thoroughly as this one did. It respects your intelligence and your point of view but also displays a filmmaker’s passion, an urgency to finally understand this case and all of its ramifications. You’ll come away changed and much better for it. It’s an amazing piece of work.