Yes, ‘O.J.: Made in America’ is a Triumph of Documentary Storytelling — But it Has a Troubling Blind Spot Around Domestic Violence in the NFL


In the fifth and final episode of O.J.: Made in America, which premieres Saturday, Pablo Fenjves describes ghostwriting Simpson’s 2007 book, If I Did It, a “hypothetical” description of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Fenjves lived just a few doors down from Nicole’s Brentwood home, the site of the June 12, 1994 murders, and he famously testified to hearing the “plaintive wail” of Nicole’s dog, which helped the prosecution cement its timeline. “I got there thinking he was a murderer and I left there more convinced than ever that he was a murderer,” Fenjves says of his time spent working on the book with Simpson. But what’s “most disturbing,” he says, is “our appetite for that kind of stuff.”

After the sweeping sensation of FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story earlier this year, that appetite was hard to deny. Writer/director Ezra Edelman had already begun work on Made in America, the first mini-series in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary program, before he heard that FX had a fictional version of Simpson’s story planned. But Made in America is a different project entirely — not a panoramic view of the trial and its players but a penetrating look at a fallen hero in the context of race and police brutality in Los Angeles and the country as a whole.

Made in America is not squeamish about its subject. It rushes headlong into the most controversial, uncomfortable aspects of Simpson’s story — particularly the irony of Simpson benefiting from the support of a community from which he had explicitly distanced himself for his entire career. Edelman isn’t afraid to look closely at some of the most shameful episodes in L.A.’s past — the second episode is almost entirely devoted to the history of the city’s race relations — like the 1979 killing of 39-year-old Eula Mae Love, who was shot by police eight times on her own front lawn because she owed money on her gas bill, and, of course, the 1991 beating of Rodney King.

A staggering amount of research went into Made in America, which includes archival footage from nearly every period of Simpson’s life. In the first episode, we see O.J. as a bashful college football star in the 1960s and a dashing Buffalo Bills running back in the 1970s. Interviews with former coaches and players, as well as footage of Simpson sprinting and dodging on the field, help the non-sports fan — or those too young to remember Simpson as a football star — understand what made him such a phenomenon even before the murders.

Two of the most interesting interview subjects are former jurors Yolanda Crawford and Carrie Bess, both black women who defend their “not guilty” vote not only on the basis of the L.A.P.D.’s history of racism, but on the prosecution’s shoddy work. “It wasn’t payback,” Crawford says of the predominantly black jury’s decision in the series’ final installment. “They messed up.”

The early episodes lean on Simpson as a bright, rising star, with footage of the young football star tearing up the field interspersed with Chevrolet and Hertz commercials in which he appeared in the 1970s. Edelman highlights the gap between Simpson, who moved in white, upper-class circles, and other prominent black athletes of the 1970s, like Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who infamously raised their black-gloved fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics. The emphasis on Simpson’s distance from the black community in the first two episodes pays off later, when Edelman examines how Simpson’s defense team used the L.A.P.D.’s disgraceful history of racial bias against the prosecution, resulting in their client’s acquittal.

Despite Made in America’s proximity to the FX series, Edelman does an excellent job making the familiar events of the trial appear newly shocking. Because he has access to so much footage, he’s able to shrewdly cut between talking heads and the scenes they’re describing. Many of the trial’s main figures, like prosecutor Marcia Clark, district attorney Gil Garcetti, and defense attorneys Carl Douglas and Barry Scheck, add insightful, frank, and often funny commentary. Prosecutor Chris Darden is noticeably absent, while others, like defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, have since died.

The final episode enters less familiar territory, documenting the period when Simpson was a free man — but one whom many believed to be a murderer. Footage of the aging Simpson partying with bikini-clad women in South Beach and making bizarre, Punk’d-style man-on-the-street videos evokes a mixture of pity and disgust — and then disgust at yourself for feeling pity.

Edelman isn’t afraid to show how Simpson continued to beguile even those who considered him to be a murderer. One of the scenes I found most terrifying wasn’t violent or bloody — it was a scene of Wendy Williams interviewing Simpson on her radio show in the early 2000s, and slowly warming to the man of whom she seems so wary at first. “Damn you, I like you,” she says. “Damn you, O.J. Simpson, you’re charming.”

The docu-series isn’t suggesting we have blood on our hands because of how we’ve regarded Simpson as a piece of sensational entertainment — as “content” — rather than a sad, messed up criminal. But in real life and in popular culture (is there even a difference anymore?), we’ve proven our fascination with people who do and say the wrong thing. As Walter White and the current Republican nominee have proven, it’s all too easy to valorize someone who doesn’t play by the rules, no matter how ugly their words or violent their behavior.

As engrossing and meticulously composed as Made in America is, it reminds me of the countless film and TV plots that revolve around a beautiful dead woman whose voice we literally never hear. Simpson’s rise and fall is meaty stuff, and given that his story weaves together so many urgent, central issues in contemporary American culture — racism, misogyny, domestic abuse, fame and celebrity, Kardashians — our ongoing fascination with all things O.J. is understandable.

But, like our ongoing fascination with Donald Trump, it’s hard to sustain without feeling at least a little bit complicit in the very thing that we all claim to be horrified by. Made in America ends with a montage of the Juice in his 1960s and ’70s heyday, but in the end there was one image I couldn’t get out of my mind, one I hadn’t seen before: A crime scene photo of Nicole Brown Simpson’s slashed throat, the cut so deep and wide it leaves a gaping red cavity.

Made in America urges us to look at things and contemplate ideas that make us feel not just uncomfortable but complicit in social issues like racism and America’s ravenous celebrity culture. But in the seven and a half hours the documentary devotes to Simpson’s story, it largely ignores the widespread, never-ending issue of misogyny and domestic abuse. Given the rate of domestic abuse charges in the NFL — not to mention how seldom pro athletes are penalized for such transgressions in this country — this is particularly disappointing coming from an ESPN production.

More disappointing is the nagging feeling that a documentary about domestic violence wouldn’t be half the sensation that Made in America has already become as it completes the film festival rounds and settles onto our TV screens. Nothing will change as long as our fascination for the perpetrators of heinous crimes obscures the victims themselves.

I can’t help but think that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman would never be the subjects of such a meticulous, groundbreaking documentary. But then, they never got a chance to live out their lives the way Simpson has. They’re gone forever, but Simpson lives on in infamy. He’s eligible for parole next year.

O.J.: Made in America premieres Saturday, June 11 at 9 p.m. on ABC, before moving to ESPN. The schedule for the rest of the series is as follows:

Tuesday, June 14

7 p.m. – Re-air of Episode 1

9 p.m. – Premiere of Episode 2

Wednesday, June 15

7 p.m. – Re-air of Episode 2

9 p.m. – Premiere of Episode 3

Friday, June 17

7 p.m. – Re-air of Episode 3

9 p.m. – Premiere of Episode 4

Saturday, June 18

7 p.m. – Re-air of Episode 4

9 p.m. – Premiere of Episode 5