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FX’s masterful limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story performed a virtual clean sweep of the Emmy Awards this past September. And now it’s looking increasingly possible that director Ezra Edelman’s deep, wide ocean of a documentary, O.J.: Made in America, might very well beat the odds and score a spot among the nominees at this year’s Oscars.
The haunting, 7-hour-and-47-minute Dickensian epic about the life of O.J. Simpson, which pulls a myriad of cultural, racial and political issues into its orbit, premiered to unanimous acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The raves kept coming as it was released — first in movie theaters in May (necessary for Academy Award qualification) and later aired on TV. In June, EW awarded the project an extremely rare A+ grade when it debuted on ABC and ESPN. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 100 percent Fresh rating with 39 reviews banked.
And now with the awards season heating up, O.J.: Made in America has been named Best Documentary by every film-award group that has given out prizes thus far, including from the Gotham Awards, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. It’s also in the running for an IFP Independent Spirit Award.
In a press release announcing the New York Film Critics Circle awards, chairman David Edelstein addressed the unorthodox nature of this particular film’s victory. “Voting briefly stopped when one member raised the issue that the documentary leading at that juncture, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, was more of a made-for-television event than a theatrical feature — although it did have a theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles. In recognizing this superb, panoramic film, we also acknowledge that much great documentary work is now seeded by television entities, among them ESPN (which financed the O.J. film), HBO, PBS, Amazon, and Netflix, and that the window between a theatrical and television run has closed significantly. Insofar as this allows for more exceptional documentaries that can be seen by wider audiences, we welcome this development.”
Indeed, given its length and episodic treatment, some have argued it’s unfair to other documentaries — including Ava DuVernay’s stunning 13TH — to consider O.J.: Made in America for awards. But as Edelstein indicated, exposure to audiences should be the first priority. And there is very recent precedent for films like Netflix’s The Square and What Happened, Miss Simone? (and hopefully 13TH this year) getting nominated for best documentary at the Oscars — films that scored a wide exposure not from theatrical release but streaming services. If O.J.: Made in America getting nominated and perhaps winning an Oscar encourages more documentarians to take advantage of the theatrical release loophole and submit their films for consideration, isn’t that simply a good thing for the art form and the industry?
Others seem dissuaded by the O.J.: Made in America running time — and suggest its extreme length serves as an impediment against Oscar inclusion. History debunks this. In certain cases, the Academy has honored super-long sit pieces, such as a seven-plus hour War and Peace, which won Best Foreign Language Film in 1968 and a six-hour version of Little Dorritt, which received acting and writing nominations in 1988. In 1985, a scandal erupted when the documentary nominating committee snubbed Claude Lanzmann’s acclaimed eight-hour saga on the Holocaust, Shoah.
And despite the uphill climb, as it heads into the Oscar marathon, perhaps what gives O.J.: Made in America the greatest advantage is the current political climate. Among many other topics it explores, Edelman’s film is most remarkable for how it dissects the culture’s — and specifically the media’s — obsession with celebrity and obscenity at the sake of reporting actual news. As extensively detailed in the documentary, the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 gave rise to the 24-hour news cycle, fueled by the football and movie star’s fame and dictated by viewers’ craving for every sordid detail of his trial.
And Edelman’s searing indictment of the media is obviously not irrelevant to the times we’re living in right now. “If Trump Tweets It, Is It News? A Quandary for the News Media,” reads the latest of hundreds headlines from the past year (that one is from the New York Times) questioning the newspapers’ and TV news’ sensationalistic handling of Donald Trump. The President-elect is relentless in attacking what he describes as the “shameless,” “dirty,” “corrupt” media — while at least publicly disregarding how the media ballooned his candidacy from before he even entered the race.
Asked about the movie’s relevancy at the Gotham Awards earlier this week, Edelman said he found it “kind of sad.”
“The intersection between journalism and commerce is obviously very fraught,” he said. “With the O.J. Simpson trial, there was a shift, which was very real. And what we’ve seen in the last year is just proof of that shift in a much more damaging way.”
Edelman added, “In many ways we tried to explore race and politics and media and celebrity in the film,” Edelman said, “without touching specifically on what’s happening today in terms of all those things. But it’s all very much in line. I just never thought that there would end up being a prescience about this stuff so soon.”
O.J.: Made in America is out now in select theaters (such as New York City’s Metrograph and Museum of Modern Art and an upcoming free screening at The Roxy Hotel or by streaming at iTunes, Hulu, or ESPN.