I remember watching the verdict from the O.J. Simpson trial in my elementary school classroom. Having no familiarity with Simpson as either a sports phenom or a movie star, this moment was the first and last I’d given him much attention. He was a celebrity before my time, and now he was someone who had obviously (at least to me) killed two people and gotten away with it. His story was sad and grim, and had little to do with my own story.
So when Simpson’s story returned to the spotlight this year in the dramatized television anthology The People vs. O.J., and this ESPN five-part documentary, O.J.: Made in America, my interest wasn’t particularly piqued. But the huge amounts of praise lauded on this comprehensive look at the life of Simpson prompted me to seek it out and devote nearly 8 hours to this real-life American folk tale, a film which stands next to the likes of Citizen Kane in its eviscerating rise-and-fall narrative as a critique of the American ethos.
The documentary flows both chronologically and thematically, following the life of O.J. from his childhood into his college years, then to the NFL and film career, culminating in the Bronco chase and the trial about the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. As the film reveals some amazing footage which frequently had me wondering, “I wonder how they got that?” it also goes on long tangential explorations of various connected themes: racism in America; the controversial history of the LAPD; the cult of celebrity and marketing; the influence of the media on pubic perception. These are anything but shallow or parenthetical; some of these tangents require up to 45 minutes of the documentary’s running time in their comprehensive study of the particular topic and its history.
All of these themes are interwoven with a smorgasbord of footage from O.J.’s life, as well as some intimate and revealing interviews from the various players in the drama. From O.J.’s dream team of trial lawyers, to his childhood best friends, to Nicole’s family members, to various LAPD officers involved in the case, to the petty crooks O.J. brought along in for a robbery in Las Vegas (he’s currently serving time in prison for this final criminal act), there are so many perspectives as to create a multi-faceted and exhaustive study of this man’s life and persona. It’s an incredible amount of detail being explored, some of it very intimate and personal, even to the point of being graphic (Warning: the film explicitly shows the crime scene photos of the bodies of Nicole and Ron, which are horribly violent and disturbing). The editing of all this footage must have been an incredible endeavor, and one the filmmakers have done masterfully. I was absolutely fascinated by the extent this tale could take–this story was more than just a trial, more than just a media sensation. While some of the interview techniques became tiresome–for example, the camera would often do a quick zoom on a person speaking in order to foster a greater sense of drama–this is the sort of documentary which addresses controversy without becoming overly didactic or heavy-handed.
In a cultural climate where Black Lives Matter continues to fight against police brutality and racial injustice, where the political scandals and media sensations are daily–even hourly–in their urgency for our attention, where the cult of celebrity continues to flourish with last names like Kardashian, and where money and fame can seemingly buy anything (including a possible ticket to the White House), the trial of a former football star who murdered his wife and her friend (yes, I absolutely think Simpson was guilty in their deaths, and he cryptically admits as much in this film) from the early 1990s feels disturbingly relevant for 2016. While Simpson may be guilty of the crimes he committed, O.J.: Made in America puts the entire American value system on trial, forcing us to ask the difficult questions about what kind of society creates the environment for such a violent crime to occur while justice remains only as a nebulous ideal.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5275892/