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.