O.J.: Made in America.

My latest Insider column discusses Mike Hazen and diversity in baseball, and my latest boardgame review for Paste covers the pirate-themed Islebound, which looks great but plays too slowly.

My employer’s eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America is a real tour de force of nonfiction storytelling, combining two separate, strong narratives to give us the rise and fall of one of the most beloved celebrities of the last fifty years within the context of American race relations, particularly between white police and government authorities and African-American civilians. It paints pictures of two O.J.’s: the sports star who crossed over to become an icon to black and white audiences, and the manipulative wife-beater who eventually killed Nicole Brown and innocent bystander Ronald Goldman, only to be acquitted in a ‘trial of the century.’ Aired in five separate parts, the film casts an incredibly wide net and manages to inform the viewers not just on the facts but on the landscape in which those facts took place. (The film is streaming via the WatchESPN app and can be purchased on amazon or iTunes).

The documentary starts more or less with Simpson in community college, although it dips back into his childhood to introduce us to many of the figures who appear in the documentary on camera or in the action itself, as he’s about to head to USC, where the nation first became aware of his superlative talent on the field. The Buffalo Bills drafted Simpson, but their system didn’t make good use of his abilities for the first few years of his career and he appeared to be a disappointment until new head coach Lou Saban built the team’s offense around him in 1972. Simpson took off from there, becoming the first back to rush for 2000 yards (back in the 14-game schedule), breaking Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record, winning the league MVP and several rushing titles, and eventually retiring with the second-most rushing yards in NFL history.

Simpson started to convert his football prowess into commercial success early in his career, and began acting in films shortly after becoming a football star. Although the documentary focuses more on his comic work – he was Nordberg in the three Naked Gun films, probably the role for which he’s most remembered now as an actor – he also appeared in dramatic works, including an episode of Roots, only the greatest miniseries of all time (per Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz). By the time Simpson hung up his cleats, he was a cross-platform star, a bankable celebrity whom the film credits with ushering in the era of the sports star endorsement that we can blame for those awful Peyton Manning Nationwide commercials.

That story takes up the first two hours or so of the film, and it’s exhilirating to watch: there’s plenty of game footage, but we also get to watch the development of a national icon, turning from a charming but very unpolished athlete into a confident, ambitious actor and pitchman. In an era where endorsements were limited to white stars, Simpson broke the mold. That he did so by avoiding any emphasis on his race, such as commenting on political matters or protests, did not seem remarkable at the time; it was the path of least resistance for someone who wanted the fame and income that came from celebrity, not the power or the podium.

This part of the documentary is interspersed with the backdrop of rising racial animus in California, including the Watts riots, the police shooting of Eulia Love, the murder of Latasha Harkins by a Korean grocer (convicted but sentenced only to probation), and the Rodney King beating and acquittal. In a sense, it’s all prologue for the murder trial of Simpson, where the context of a city where many black citizens were convinced that they were being unfairly targeted by the police and treated differently by the courts informed a trial that included a cop, Mark Fuhrman, with a history of racist statements, and the defense accusation of planted evidence. The physical evidence, including DNA, should have made this a slam-dunk for the prosecution, but the defense created plenty of reasonable doubt, including prosecutor Chris Darden’s own inexplicable decision to ask Simpson to try on one of the gloves with his DNA on it, as well as by playing the race card to gain Simpson a fast acquittal.

I remember being disgusted to see people celebrating the verdict at the time, and the images still repulse me today: the fact that a black man could beat the system should not be more important than the fact that an abused wife and a total stranger were brutally murdered. But O.J.: Made in America doesn’t pass judgment itself; the film gives us both contemporary footage from the trial and reaction along with commentary today from so many participants, including two jurors (both black women) and the practically made-for-television civil rights lawyer Carl Douglas. Although a few key people are missing from these confessional interviews – Al Cowlings, Marguerite Simpson, and Darden stand out among the missing – the sheer number of people who did talk, and talked at length, is the production’s greatest strength. Furhman’s here. So are several of the cops who arrested Simpson, including those involved in the absurd white Bronco debacle. Many of O.J.’s longtime friends appear, including a childhood friend, Joe Bell, who comes as close as anyone here to defending the subject.

From there, we get the ugly post-trial life of Simpson up to his 2007 arrest and 2008 conviction on kidnapping and burglary charges that the film strongly implies was all payback for the 1994 acquittal. Simpson believed, according to his friends, that after the original verdict, he’d return to his old life as if nothing had happened, only to find his endorsements evaporating and many of his friends distancing themselves from him. The narrative gets a bit flimsy at this point, but the story is one of a man who relocates to Florida (to avoid the civil judgment against him), starts hanging out with less and less savory characters, and eventually adopts a “gangster” (their word, not mine) image along with his increasingly erratic behavior and poor judgment. Of course, the worst people Simpson was hanging with were collectibles dealers, and you can interpret that as you wish.

What the documentary doesn’t do, unfortunately, is even explore the question of why. Domestic violence itself is worthy of that kind of discussion – are abusers born, or are they made? If the latter, how do we interrupt the cycle that creates them? – but in Simpson’s case, the program itself gives us portraits of two extremely different men. The Simpson of the 1960s and 1970s that we see in episodes 1 and 2, married to his high school sweetheart Marguerite and out of any sort of trouble, is completely different from the controlling, obsessed Simpson who abused and eventually killed Nicole Brown. This dichotomy all but requires explanation: Was Simpson always a potential abuser, but didn’t become one until his second marriage? (Marguerite has steadfastly said that Simpson never abused her, and there is no record of any violence during their relationship.) Did his football career have anything to do with him becoming abusive or aspects of his personality that changed? The directors seem to hint at O.J.’s troubled relationship with his father, who was gay and later became a well-known drag performer, as a cause, but that’s hardly a justification for violence against women and the subject is barely discussed. It appears the directors didn’t ask any of the many longtime friends and business associates of Simpson the question: was this really who Simpson was all along?

The documentary itself is riveting; I don’t remember any single-story work of this length that held my attention as long as this one did. The pacing is brisk, and the first-person commentaries from folks as diverse as Marcia Clark, Hertz CEO Frank Olson, and Simpson’s friend Ron Shipp, a retired LAPD officer who testified against Simpson at the murder trial, are invaluable for framing (no pun intended) the story. The directors delivered even more on their “in America” part, showing how the racial and cultural context first made O.J. into a star and then helped him avoid a conviction for the two murders, even more than they tell us how O.J. was “made” into a domestic abuser and killer. ESPN released the film to theaters in New York and Los Angeles for a week so it would be eligible for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and I find it hard to imagine any two-hour challenger could come close to topping it.


  1. I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know what “evidence” it offers to suggest that the Las Vegas charges were payback (with the implication thus that they should not have been filed), but if you look at the evidence that was presented at that trial, including Mr. Simpson’s own statements after the incident, it is absolutely clear that he committed those crimes and that the charges were warranted and correct. It is perhaps reasonable to argue that his sentence was longer than it may have been otherwise because of the murder acquittal, but Nevada has some pretty hefty sentences in its guidelines for those sorts of crimes when committed with a weapon, so I’d really doubt it.

    • It’s interesting. On the one hand, it is hard to feel sorry for Simpson, the sentence for those charges is ridiculously our of proportion. My wife and I are former prosecutors, and neither of us knew much about the facts giving rise to the las vegas conviction, but we both were blown away by the sentence. We practiced in a different jurisdiction, but sentencing from state to state tends to be fairly similar (the biggest differences tend to be between federal and state sentencing). Had Simpson been convicted of those crimes in my state, I doubt he would have been sentenced to anything more than two years. I feel conflicted, because you want to believe that the criminal justice system wouldn’t hold someone accountable for a previous crime. On the other hand, it felt oddly warranted.

    • Two years for armed robbery, armed burglary, and kidnapping/unlawful detention while armed? Holy crap, can I know where you worked so I can go on a crime spree?! I kid, I kid…but seriously, even having worked in an area that is notorious for weak sentences (see the articles Klaw posted about western MA rape charges/sentences in the last couple months), there is no way that even a “first time offender” (which technically, I guess he was) gets that little. For three class A/B felonies in Nevada, which are, respectively, up to life in prison and 1-20yr sentences, I don’t see his sentence as completely out of whack; maybe a little harsher than normal, but not jaw dropping.

    • Oh, and as an aside, he was convicted of 12 counts, and both he and his co-defendant received the same sentence. He’s going to be released on parole next year (he was approved for parole already, but must serve until Oct. 2017), much sooner than I’d have expected; 9-33 years isn’t unreasonable for armed robbery and armed kidnapping.

    • I actually had a similar case (as similar as something as odd as the Simpson robbery was), where it was basically a poorly thought out robbery with a firearm in a hotel room. It involved heroin and not collectibles. everyone was convicted at trial (none of the offenders had any prior felony convictions). Judge sentenced them to what was effectively three years in prison, running all the sentences concurrent. In my experience, which is admittedly limited to one jurisdiction, judges seem to feel the the kidnapping and robbery represent redundant or dual charges and rarely dole sentences consecutively. Of course, I have also noticed that sentences tend to be much harsher if there are any TV cameras in the courtroom. It just struck me as odd, given that no one was hurt and the crime was so stupid and ill-conceived. Hell, I have convicted people for murder and sexual assault who received lighter sentences than Simpson received for that robbery. But, you are probably right, the sentence might be closer to the norm when compared to average sentences across the country.

    • “Of course, I have also noticed that sentences tend to be much harsher if there are any TV cameras in the courtroom.”

      I’d just like the highlight this sentence and say I find it fascinating if it is true. Somewhat of a tangent from this is how celebrities and other famous people receive punishment when they are convicted. The general feeling amongst the general public is that people with money are found not guilty more than the everyday people because they have access to better lawyers and starstruck prosecutors/juries. But could they also get harsher penalties because of their status? It would seem a young prosecutor could make a name for themselves when getting a conviction against someone famous, especially if that conviction would be popular, like OJ’s.

      So if 538 or a young political science major is reading this, here’s an idea for an article or thesis. Are harsher sentences handed out to celebrities or cases where there are cameras in the courtroom?

    • Well, I should have probably added a modifier. Sentences for minority defendants tend to be harsher when there was media coverage. White defendants with money/local notoriety tended to get more lenient sentences, where judges were more likely to apply mitigation factors and probation. Of course, those aren’t absolute rules (and merely anecdotal evidence from my career), but working in the criminal justice system for any length of time is eye-opening as far as the disparate manner in which the system works depending on your skin color and/or bank account.

    • Jonny, I think you’re right that often judges see the robbery and kidnapping charges as redundant, but I’m always confused by this attitude when I’ve seen it. You can commit a robbery without kidnapping, or a kidnapping without robbing someone; it’s not like one is a lesser included offense. Any thoughts from the prosecuting attorney’s point of view? For me it would make more sense to view a larceny/theft charge as redundant in a robbery case, but the kidnapping to me seems like a wholly separate issue.

    • Jeremy, I understood it, at least academically. Essentially, judges thought that kidnapping was a independent crime where the ultimate criminal endeavor was to hold someone against their will. With most robberies, the person is held momentarily and merely as a means to an end (stealing their stuff). If you have a quick robbery, defendant pulls out gun, victim is not free to leave until he or she gives the defendant property and then is released, I think the kidnapping is incidental. However, as you pointed out, sometimes there is a more substantial kidnapping that becomes part of a subsequent crime. I came across this more in a sexual assault context. Anyhow, judges seemed reluctant to sentence on the kidnapping. It might also be because (in my jurisdiction), Robbery is an A felony (sentencing range absent mitigating or aggravating factors is 7-11), whereas kidnapping is an Unclassified felony with a sentencing range of 5-99 years. I always felt like judges hate sentencing ranges that give the public a false sense of potential sentences.

      Sorry if that was rambling and confusing. I am a piss-poor writer.

    • That makes sense. I’m not used to seeing a kidnapping charge added to a robbery unless there is a specific action beyond the mere act of robbing someone that holds them against their will beyond the duration of the initial crime (tying them up, for example, while the perpetrator remains present, not just to prevent them from immediately calling for help), but if used in the manner you’re talking about, that is understandable.

      Thankfully, MA doesn’t have different levels of felony or misdemeanor crimes; if the penalty includes the potential for a sentence to the state prison, it’s a felony, and if it carries only a fine, probation, or the potential for time in a House of Correction, then it’s a misdemeanor, and every crime has its own statutorily defined sentence. Armed robbery is one of the very few that gets tricky; the sentence is written as: “shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for life or for any term of years,” with mandatory minimums for if you’re masked and/or using a firearm. For example, in this case, the mandatory minimum would have been 5 years.

      It’s funny that you say that judges hate sentencing ranges that give the public a false sense; I always got the feeling that judges hated being limited in their sentencing options, high or low, and simply wanted as much leeway as possible. I guess judges just hate…well…judging. Ironic.

    • In my experience, you are right (my poor writing strikes again). Judges do prefer greater discretion in sentencing. But, there are some crimes, like kidnapping, that have a range that extends to 99 years, but judges rarely sentence over the minimum. It allows the public to be outraged, because they see the possibility of 99 years and believe the judge is far too lenient. I am not sure how much of my experience is illustrative of national trends. I live in a weird state that is an ideological mess. It is a deep red state, but where the people have unreal entitlement expectations. They also tend to have a great distrust of government, which, in my opinion, extends to prosecution. I don’t know, it could just be the general stupidity of the masses (this gives it away, but these are the same group of idiots who elected Palin). Every sentence is either too lenient or too harsh. It probably helps explain for the judges in my state are predictably unpredictable when it comes to sentencing.

    • Well, I can’t really empathize with that, because I’m used to judges who are entirely predictable, and give “the benefit of the doubt” to criminals, regardless of the crime and their history.

      Either way, thanks for having an actual, respectful, and interesting conversation here. That’s been sadly lacking with some of the trolls that have been present during recent months (though I think Keith successfully cleared most of them out).

    • I appreciate the perspective. I did come away from the documentary thinking that the Nevada sentence for OJ was one injustice to counterbalance a previous injustice, but your comments have made me realize that perhaps I was wrong. Either way, I won’t shed any tears for OJ, but thanks for the conversation.

  2. I know you don’t watch much TV, andas counter intuitive as this sounds, I would highly recommend also watching FX’s American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson. I watched it a couple months after I watched the ESPN documentary. At first I was worried it would be overkill, but quickly found myself really enjoying it. Would strongly recommend. FWIW, Alan Sepinwall enjoyed both as well and thought they worked well together as complimentary pieces.

  3. If I remember correctly, the “payback” was in regards to the sentencing.

  4. The film depicts the robbery as a bungling effort by some dopes to help Simpson get some collectibles back and one of the guys sort of/kind of brandished a gun at some point. It suggests that no one was ever in real danger. The “victim” also all but admitted that he sort of embellished what happened.

    • Bungled or otherwise, introducing a firearm into the equation makes the situation that much more dangerous and unpredictable. There is a reason that the competence of the criminal in committing the crime isn’t a factor in determining guilt or innocence in the courtroom beyond the difference between an “attempt to commit a crime” charge and the actual offense charge (which some states don’t even distinguish between). If the accomplice had killed the victim, would you still think that it was just a “bungled effort by some dopes…”? Or at that point, is it just felony murder? To me, it seems like maybe you’re putting too much stock into the fact that they weren’t career/professional criminals who knew what they were doing; they still committed the act.

  5. Keith, I think the possibility that OJ has CTE makes the questions you ask on “why” very hard to answer right now.

  6. I’ve never binge-watched anything in my life until watching this in an eight-hour marathon one evening. It was totally captivating, reminded me of a lot of history i had forgotten (and taught me about some things I wasn’t aware of), and was just spectacular filmmaking. Being much younger then, I wasn’t aware of the long history between the LAPD and people of color, so learning about that and the deep resentments and distrust in that community was a real eye-opener.