O.J.: Made In America review: One of year's best television shows
O.J.: Made In America begins with shots of the American West — a highway stretching toward a vanishing point; blue skies over parched, bleached terrain — and a voice talking about a certain kind of American Dream, one that often leads to dead-ends or nowhere at all. “As a kid living in the ghetto, one of the things I wanted most was not money. It was fame. I wanted to be known. I wanted people to say: ‘Hey, there goes O.J.'” On that final phrase, the montage brings us to a destination: Lovelock Correctional Center, home to inmate #1027820, better known as O.J. Simpson.
It’s an evocative and sobering orientation to a remarkable work, a five-part, 10-hour documentary epic carried by over 70 original interviews, choice archival footage, revelatory home video, and a strong, intelligent point of view. Presented under the banner of ESPN’s Emmy winning “30 for 30” franchise, O.J.: Made In America premieres Saturday on ABC and continues next week on ESPN. In a big league storytelling performance, director Ezra Edelman (Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals; Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush) uses Simpson’s life and fall to dig into so many essential issues. Identity. Race. Class. Misogyny. Wealth. Violence. Justice. Celebrity. Yes, there is actually more to say about O.J., even after super-producer Ryan Murphy’s extraordinary docudrama The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But why wouldn’t there be? The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman on the evening of June 13, 1994 remain officially unsolved. And Simpson, who was later found liable for their deaths in civil court, remains a cipher to be cracked. O.J.: Made In America — a Citizen Kane-like investigation into an icon with the sweep and even the scuzz of crime epics like Goodfellas or Boogie Nights — aspires to understand him and the forces that shaped him. It’s also one of the best television shows of the year.
O.J.: Made In America is so rich — and certainly why it’s so long — because it’s not just about Simpson and it’s not just straight biography. As Edelman methodically deconstructs Simpson, he also tells the story of the city that made him, Los Angeles, and one part in particular, the African-American community. Through interviews with political and civic leaders, police officers, and longtime residents, Edelman explains how Simpson became a symbol of justice to L.A.’s black population. This, too, is a huge story, one that Edelman begins in the middle of the 20th century, when black men and women fleeing persecution and poverty in the South came to L.A. in massive numbers — the black community grew by 600 percent from 1940-1960 — chasing hope and opportunity. Instead, they found further injustice in the form of an institutionally racist and increasingly militarized police department. This volatile conflict would lead to explosive unrest — the Watts Riots of 1965; the L.A. riots of 1992 that followed the acquittal of four white cops who beat Rodney King — and turn the outcome of Simpson’s infamous murder trial into catharsis and payback for years of bad justice.
But the paradox of Simpson’s case becoming a rallying cry for the community is how hard to he worked to avoid being defined as black at all. This take on Simpson is the organizing principal of Edelman’s portrait. The first two episodes track Simpson’s evolution from boy to man to celebrity to brand — the arc of media age self-realization — and his more difficult, degrading post-football days as the most common of things, a struggling Hollywood actor. Rigorously sociopolitical in approach, Edelman constantly connects Simpson to particular cultures that influenced and elevated him. Raised by his mother in a San Francisco housing project, Simpson escaped a rough, poor childhood with charm, hustle, and athletic talent. Simpson’s father was a intermittent presence. He was also gay — a known but often underreported aspect of Simpson’s origin story — and Edelman suggests Simpson felt shame about his father, which contributed to his construct of identity. “Back in our day, that was the worst thing in the world that you could ever think about, an African American man being homosexual,” says childhood friend Joe Bell, whose raspy voiced and conflicted feelings about Simpson make him one of the doc’s most compelling narrators.
As a student-athlete at the University of Southern California, Simpson immediately became national sensation for his football heroics and a privileged big man on campus. Edelman depicts USC as a protected bubble world of white, wealthy elites, noting that the school borders the 54 square-mile sprawl of desperation that was ground zero for the Watts Riots. At USC, Simpson was “out of the black community, out of black consciousness, and submerged in all white university,” says Bell. “I don’t say this lightly, but he is seduced by white society.” (According to reports, Edelman made repeated attempts to get Simpson to talk for this doc, but to no avail.)
A key early passage has strong resonance because of a connection to the late Muhammad Ali. In fact, the cultural storytelling about Ali’s life over the past week — about his activism, conscience, and black and Muslim pride; how he made outrage over racial injustice part of every cultural engagement — serves as prologue to Edelman’s documentary. In 1967, black athletes, including Ali, were organizing and speaking out against social injustice and Vietnam, risking consequence to their image and professional prospects. Simpson — who had just captured the country’s imagination by leading USC to victory against top ranked UCLA — was asked to support to a black boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics. “His response was, ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” says Dr. Harry Edwards, organizer of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, who elaborates with a fair-minded explication of Simpson’s perspective, how he wanted to be judged for his character and accomplishments. Simpson, still maturing, overwhelmed by new celebrity, was a vulnerable amateur still more than a year away from pro paychecks — points Edelman could have hit harder. Still, he lets Simpson address the matter himself via interviews from the time, and he exhibits a solipsism and dodging attitude, qualities that would more pronounced and problematic when he graduated into the National Football League and beyond.
Edelman depicts Simpson as profiting by running away from race and courting white America, and backs it up with solid reporting and insights from friends and associates. “O.J.’s quest was to erase race as a defining factor in his life,” says Edwards, “and that was the basis by which white society not only accepted him but embraced him.” Simpson parlayed a slow starting but ultimately exceptional NFL career into concurrent careers as an actor and corporate pitchman, paving the way for Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and other black athletes to become product endorsers. But who was marketing who? In a sequence introducing Simpson’s long relationship with Hertz Rent-a-Car, Edelman uses ad execs and Edwards to analyze how a commercial was crafted to promote Simpson to white audiences. The perspective on Simpson aside, the docu-series is valuable for illuminating the cunning craft of performance and manipulating perception. Peter Hyams, director of the 1978 film Capricorn One, reveals he was opposed to casting Simpson — he didn’t think he had the acting chops — and how he had to apply prosthetic devices to Simpson’s face to help convey mortal desperation during a key scene.
Each two-hour chapter of O.J.: Made In America is a singular, dense, and fulfilling experience unto itself. In the second episode, Edelman focuses on Simpson’s ’80s Hollywood high life — his Rockingham mansion in the ritzy neighborhood of Brentwood was his “Graceland,” and a hotspot for L.A. power players — and his relationship with Nicole Brown, an aspiring model and classic Southern California blonde beauty. Edelman pokes at lot of ideas that might have factored into Simpson’s eroding character and toxic masculinity: the collapse of his marriage to teenage sweetheart, Marguerite Whitley; the death of a daughter from drowning; the shame of being a distant, disconnected father as his own father was to him; his pursuit of significance and wealth, aided and abetted by friends and businessmen captivated by his celebrity; and some delusions of unattainable grandeur that were beyond him. Apparently, Simpson entertained ambitions of becoming a Hollywood studio chief.
Here, Edelman presents Simpson as a man who was simply not good enough to be what he wanted to be in his NFL afterlife — surely a tough fact for a competitor to accept. He tried, worked hard, and failed to land a lead role in Milos Forman’s 1981 adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime: Coalhouse Walker, brash romantic and professional entertainer turned self-destructing vengeful radical. (The late Howard E. Rollins, Jr. got the part.) Edelman plays, at length, an interview Simpson gave celebrity journalist Rona Barrett at the time about his affinity for Coalhouse. What’s striking about his take is how it sums up his own attitudes about race and completely misses the tragedy of the character. “I just could identify with this guy so much. It was a black man at a time when you were supposed to know you were black, you were supposed to know you had a place. I was raised in the sports world, where you’re only judged by your abilities and what you have to give. … I could understand exactly what he felt. When he walked in a room, he gave no credence to the fact that he was black and that he wasn’t supposed to say things or treated any differently, and that’s the way I tried to look at my life. I felt I was the right person for the role. I felt I was today’s Coalhouse Walker.”
Ragtime was beyond Simpson’s skill as an actor. But he also flopped — surprisingly — as a Monday Night Football color commentator. His greatest Hollywood success was his role The Naked Gun movies. His high energy and ace mugging served the slapstick, though that’s not why he got the part. Helmer David Zucker — damning Simpson with brutal honesty and the faintest of praise — tells Edelman that Simpson was hired because of his celebrity, because the production didn’t want “an all-white cast,” and because he was cheap. “He was still in the public eye, but yet he was economical because I don’t think he was in demand for movies. O.J. was fine for Naked Gun. There was nobody better.”
Edelman lays out Simpson’s personal and professional travails before reporting on his volatile and violent years with Brown, whom he married in 1985, and the disintegration of their union. When charges of domestic violence were made public in 1989, Simpson, his friends say, was concerned about the damage to his image. Edelman shows awkward efforts at spin control, including a one-on-one with then-ESPN journalist Ray Firestone. Diaries, testimonials and a chilling 9-1-1 call, in which Simpson can be heard thundering at Brown in the background, present him as increasingly possessive and jealous and incapable of self-control. Still, it’s this chapter of O.J.: Made In America that cries out most for interviews Edelman couldn’t secure, including more members of the Brown family, Brown’s alleged lover, Marcus Allen, Simpson himself, and, of course, the victims. On the evening of June 12, 1994, Brown, who had resolved to split from Simpson once and for all, was murdered at her Brentwood home along with Ronald Goldman.
The third and fourth parts rehearse, once again, the ordeal that was “the trial of the century.” Yeah, you just watched it on The People vs. O.J. Simpson, but Edelman’s reporting makes it fresh and yields revelations, including an allegation about how Simpson might have manipulated the trial’s most notorious turn — the moment when prosecution had him try on one of the bloody gloves. Edelman scores interviews with two jury members and most of the usual suspects, including Marcia Clark and Gil Garcetti for the prosecution and F. Lee Bailey and a brazenly candid Carl Douglas for the defense. They’re strange to the eye at first because of Murphy’s docudrama — how come Clark doesn’t look like Sarah Paulson? — but that works the Edelman’s advantage: his characters are new and fascinating to us all over again. I enjoyed the act of watching them reclaim their images from Hollywood. They’re even compelling when they fail at it. L.A.P.D. detective Mark Fuhrman receives the tough questions about the caught-on-tape racism that subverted the prosecution against Simpson; his responses range from chastened to defiant. Defense attorney Barry Scheck, who aggressively heaped doubt on the physical evidence, comes off shifty as he tries to elude interrogations about fair play and Simpson’s guilt.
By attending to Simpson’s racial erasure in his marketeering and the racial divisions in Los Angeles throughout the series, O.J.: Made In America pays off in the late stages with powerful moments rooted in a irony: a man who ran away from being seen as black, escaping jail by exploiting the very real institutional racism that had plagued L.A. for decades. There’s amazing home video of Simpson back at Rockingham after the trial reacting to his lawyer Robert Shapiro’s notorious confession to Barbara Walters: “Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.” The fifth episode profiles Simpson’s post-trial spiral into shameful self-debasement as the former cultural hero and blue-chip endorser tries to survive by trading off his tarnished laurels and present infamy. In another home video jaw-dropper, we see Simpson, the master media manipulator, faking paparazzi footage so he can sell it to the tabloids. Edelman brings us into the sadness and sleaze of Simpson’s low-life exile in Florida, in which he kept company with dubious sycophants and sports memorabilia peddlers. He takes us behind the scenes of cash-grab debacles like the If I Did It book and the pay-per-view prank show special Juiced, which included an ugly parody (?) of a gangsta rap video — a far cry from the scrupulous image-making of his early years of brand building. And there’s significant attention given to the armed robbery that finally landed Simpson in jail — a dumb, reckless scheme to steal back valuables from his glory days. Simpson is currently imprisoned in Nevada, serving a 33-year sentence (with possibility of parole). While his incarceration may please many, others see the punishment as suspiciously severe. Edelman gives voice to ideas that might explain why.
Extraordinary on so many levels, O.J.: Made In America transcends its stated subjects and themes. It’s a withering critique of self-creation, culture making, and idolatry that speaks to everyone, regardless of race. The moments that haunt me the most are the ones in which Edelman’s interview subjects wrestle with their conscience — or resist it — as they consider their part in the tragedy of O.J. Simpson and those who suffered him. Among them: Simpson’s former marketing agent Mike Gilbert, whose disclosures and his guilt steal the show the last half of the docuseries. “There’s something deep seated that I think a lot of people like myself have to face up to, about what created this character,” says businessman and author Thomas C. McCollum, a friend of Simpson’s. “It wasn’t just him. It’s part society.” A+