‘O.J.: Made In America’ is a Meticulous, Powerful Documentary Companion to ‘The People vs. O.J. Simpson’

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Part of what made FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson so thrilling, of why so many people seemed so taken by it, was that by all rights it should’ve been terrible. Aside from the usual reservations about the works of Ryan Murphy, a dramatization of the O.J. Simpson trial sounded like something of a slime-fest; who really wanted to pull the scab off the O.J. trial, a parade of blood, abuse, debasement, and bigotry that felt, at the time, like the nadir of our all-consuming tabloid culture?

And yet, The People vs. O.J. Simpson is riveting – the latest instance of this hideous story transformed into gripping, thoughtful cultural commentary. And there’s been a rash of this work in recent years: a brilliant segment on This American Life, a Vanity Fair article that framed the Simpson/Goldman murders as the true birthplace of reality TV, Brett Morgan’s stunning 30 for 30 entry June 17th, 1994 . That was an impressionistic work of media montage; now, 30 for 30 returns to the scene of the crime for their first mini-series, O.J.: Made in America, which screened in its entirety at the Tribeca Film Festival yesterday and will run on ABC and ESPN in June. Before that, it will run briefly in New York and Los Angeles theaters, for the purpose of Oscar consideration. That is a wise move. This is a staggering piece of work.

It’s also one that’s worth seeing in its full, 7 ½ hour form, as it was screened at Tribeca (with two intermissions) and will presumably run in those markets; you get lost in the full film, pulled back into its world, immersed in its history and storytelling. Its extended duration allows director Ezra Edelman to challenge conventional ideas of what’s connected, of how far back a story like this can reach. Its television airings will break into five parts; the first two cover Simpson’s rise to fame and marriage to Nicole Brown, the next two concern her murder and Simpson’s trial, and the final part spans the bizarre years that followed his acquittal. But those rough parameters sell short the scope of Edelman’s work. While the first two parts lay out O.J.’s path to Nicole’s murder, they also trace the LAPD to that point – the ’30s and ‘40s corruption, the influence of Chiefs Parker and Gates, the Watts riots, the deaths of Leonard Deadwyler (whose widow was represented by a very young Johnnie Cochrane) and Latasha Harlin – because in this story, for better or worse, those histories are inseparable.

The simultaneous production of Made in America and The People vs. O.J. Simpson is one of those strange bits of occasional television serendipity, but the results are less a case of competition than complementation – viewers who either reconnected with or were introduced to the case via Murphy and company will find parts three and four of particular note, as they cover roughly the same period but pack even more of a stranger-than-fiction punch. (For all the force of the Bronco “chase” in People, and the breadth of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s performance, the recordings of the real calls between the LAPD and the suicidal Simpson are still shocking.)

Edelman interviews most of the key surviving players: Marcia Clark, Mark Fuhrman, Gil Garcetti, Fred Goldman, Barry Scheck, Bill Hodgman, Carl Douglas, Jeffrey Toobin (no Chris Darden, sadly). And in this section, Made in America’s expanded length allows Edelman to go deeper, drill down further, break down the coverage, break down the chase, break down the trial, break down the response. And when visual cues connect the Furman tapes to all the images and incidents of abuse and injustice in parts one and two, the effect is astonishing.

This was not an undocumented life, and the sheer volume of material is overwhelming – so the skill and tautness of the cutting is even more impressive. It’s a sprawling documentary, but Edelman (and his editors) never lose control of it. He vibrantly visualizes the glory years, the fame and fortune; he brilliantly intercuts the unrest of 1968 with a Bob Hope appearance at USC, joshing around with the apolitical O.J.; and when Robert Kardashian reads that almost-suicide letter on live television, Edelman illustrates it with quick, powerful flashes of the charmed life Simpson’s letter describes.

Edelman’s mastery of mood is particularly striking – he reconstructs the Rodney King verdict riots with a stirring immediacy, while using 911 tapes and stories of Nicole’s abuse to create the impression, throughout their marriage and particularly after it ended, of a ticking time bomb. And he brilliantly uses editing for ironic counterpoint, particularly when the superstar’s lawyers suddenly reframed Simpson as a pillar of a community he’d all but abandoned decades earlier.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to telling Simpson’s story is to reckon with those contradictions in his character. This was, as Edelman shows, a man who dismissed the movement by other African-American athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympics with his statement – his insistence, really – that “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” He was, in that charged political moment, “the counter-revolutionary black athlete,” and much of the pre-1994 period details the way he was “seduced” by the white world. His fame and fortune allowed him to construct a bubble for himself, and move into it; only when Nicole and Ron Goldman were murdered did that bubble burst. “It was bigger than O.J. Simpson. Something more than him was at stake,” we’re told. Yet the fact that the banner case for equalizing racial injustice rested on the shoulders of a man who never saw himself as black, nor positioned himself within black culture, was the ultimate irony; it was a symbolic victory, but for an almost comically inaccurate symbol.

Made in America feels like the definitive piece on this story, the last word, and it makes, in no uncertain terms, a very compelling case for Simpson’s guilt. Throughout the trial sections, the evidence is presented clearly and convincingly, while giving a more than fair hearing to the defense’s rebuttals. Or is it the other way around? As with so much in this case, it’s all about how you see it, about the loaded notions and social pathology that color your vision. But when Bill Hodgman breaks down exactly how he thinks it happened, complemented by those grisly crime scene photos and a frightening score, it’s all so brutal and unblinking and convincing, it’s hard not to go along with him. (It doesn’t hurt that pretty much everyone close to Simpson seems to know that he did it, say that he did it, or imply that he did it.)

It was easy, back when it all was happening, to see disengaging from the Simpson trial as some sort of principled stand in the name of good taste – it just all seemed so ghoulish, so macabre, so scuzzy. But the degree to which we indulge our basest instincts says much about who we are as a people, and those elements of this story are what make it so fascinating now, from a historical distance. O.J.: Made in America isn’t just about this man, or even about this police department; it’s about this city and this country, then and now, and the preoccupations that continue to define it, race and sex and violence and celebrity and wealth and power. “When I walk down the street, I want people to know me,” O.J. said, early in his public life. If nothing else, he certainly accomplished that.

O.J.: Made in America premieres on ABC on June 11, with additional episodes on ESPN on June 14, 15, 17 and 18.