The secret weapon of Ezra Edelman’s excellent new O.J. Simpson documentary, O.J.: Made in America, is time: a full seven-and-a-half hours, which played together in an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run before a five-part premiere on ESPN last week. The major benefit of this luxurious runtime is that Edelman has the chance to make the case, compellingly and in detail, that Simpson’s acquittal on charges of double homicide may have had less to do with specific evidence than with Simpson’s reputation as a public figure and, equally important, with the greater history of Los Angeles. Indeed, Edelman dedicates no less than three hours to framing Simpson’s life before the trial against the wider history of the city, which K. Austin Collins describes at The Ringer:
The history of Los Angeles violence and the stories of O.J.’s relationship with Nicole twine, tightly, around O.J.’s image. Our sense of parallel worlds that seem to be distinguished merely by race — one rich and white and called Brentwood, the other poor, black, and brown, an underclass whose quality of life is contingent on shifting tides in policing — is complicated by Edelman’s rhythmic back and forth between them. They become as distinct as they are inseparable, giving the documentary a startling moral backbone. You’ll notice that we spend seemingly as much time looking at Nicole’s bruised face on Polaroids she’d stored in her safety deposit box as we do at blacks’ beatings by the LAPD. That for every minute spent watching Rodney King get beaten, we had to listen to stories or audio of Nicole’s beatings. In a sequence that will undoubtedly become the focus of our discussions about the series, we’re treated to a detailed forensic analysis of Nicole’s and Ron’s killings, narrated second-to-second through close-ups of their blood stains and wounds. The show is asking us to linger.
As Scott Tobias notes at Vulture, this lingering on the story before and beyond the trial’s courtroom drama makes Made in America an engaging complement to this year’s other major O.J. Simpson television event, FX’s American Crime Story miniseries:
It all speaks to a consistent strength: Given the sheer length of Made in America, Edelman makes shrewd choices about the details he emphasizes and minimizes, which is why watching the documentary after The People v. O.J. Simpson doesn't feel redundant in the least. Where the FX series delved more into the personal dramas of the key figures involved — the tormented soul of Robert Kardashian, the backroom infighting between the Dream Team defense attorneys, the sexist response to Clark in the media, etc. — Made in America turns a wealth of personal anecdotes and details into a pointillist painting of the trial and its larger significance as a story about racial justice and American culture.
In other words, while the relatively narrow focus of the miniseries means that its view of the role of race in Simpson’s trial is largely limited to the defense team’s moves to play “the race card” and the prosecution team’s private allusions to Rodney King, Edelman’s film investigates why Johnnie Cochran was hardly the only person in the black community in Los Angeles to see race not as an accessory to the trial, but as its central issue. Mary McNamara at the Los Angeles Times goes on:
It’s easy, and accurate, to connect Simpson's acquittal to that of the police officers who viciously beat Rodney King and the riots that followed. But the notion of "payback" is far too simplistic. And to prove that, “Made in America” starts from scratch — Simpson as a boy, L.A. as the illusory promised land for black Americans fleeing the prejudice of the South. The details are so many and so revelatory, the crisscrossing themes so rich and illuminating, that the space between each episode becomes as important as the episode itself, a place to sit with what has just transpired.The first episode especially is a symphony of counterpoint, with Simpson’s life laid against the experience of black Los Angeles. Institutionalized police brutality sparks the Watts riots and continues long after. Simpson, a gifted athlete and radiant personality from the San Francisco projects is recruited to and embraced by the rich white bubble of USC — even as, blocks away, black men and women continue to be randomly arrested, beaten or killed. As No. 32 streaks past defensive linemen and grants interviews with personable humility, police regularly tear South Los Angeles homes and families apart.
While this focus is effective, it may risk overshadowing a central issue no less deserving of our attention, remarks A. O. Scott at the New York Times:
Inevitably, there are gaps in the record and holes in the interpretive framework the film constructs around it. It is hard not to notice the predominance of male voices among the interview subjects, and the narrowness of the film’s discussion of domestic violence. This is not to say that the issue is ignored: Mr. Simpson’s history of abusing Nicole is extensively and graphically documented, as is the fact that most of his friends ignored what was going on at their Rockingham estate. But the film, which so persuasively treats law enforcement racism as a systemic problem, can’t figure out how to treat violence against women with the same kind of rigor or nuance.
One might, in response, point to an observation by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the film’s interview subjects: “There is no more powerful a narrative in American society than that of race.” In many respects, that could be the film’s thesis: that the trial of O.J. Simpson wasn’t really about O.J. or the crime. Or, as Jen Chaney puts it at Vulture:
“We talk about O.J. as though the story is O.J.,” says journalist Celia Farber, one of the many sources who speak directly to camera throughout. “The story is O.J. and us.”
To the film’s credit, though, it never quite loses sight of the fact that two people were murdered in a vicious and brutal crime. Brian Tallerico, at RogerEbert.com, describes its impact on a personal level:
An hour into part four, there’s a detailed recounting of exactly what happened the night that Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman died, with brutal crime scene photos. The horror and violence of that night is jawdropping and as terrifying as any horror movie. The doc gets graphic, and I started to get emotional not just because of the impact of the crime but because I realized I didn’t know these details before. I interned at a news station during the original case and I was as enraptured with the story as anyone but the actual horror of the crime was distracted by conspiracy theories and the blinding light of fame.
Of course, it’s the tension between these elements—the legacy of racial injustice at the hands of the LAPD and the disturbing and tabloid-ready crime—that makes the O.J. Simpson trial endlessly fascinating. In one light, it was a miscarriage of justice; in another, a victory for another kind of justice. In the end, most viewers might agree with Jack Hamilton, writing at Slate: “It’s a testament to both Made in America’s remarkable sophistication and to America’s remarkably twisted racial pathologies that, by the end of the film, one has the sense that both sides may have been equally right.”
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.