The OJ Simpson story. It embodies so much drama, soap opera, historical context, culture, insanity, tragedy- it's hard to believe it was a thing that really happened, something that really played out all over our TV sets as millions of people watched it live. In 2016 we've been gifted with two amazing series about the subject- FX's The People v. OJ Simpson, and now ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series, OJ: Made in America. As entertaining as the FX show was, the documentary is something else entirely. It feels like history. It feels essential. And it's the best show of the year so far.
I think the OJ Simpson story is a cultural touchstone that plays on a different level for people who remember watching it happen. I said before in my review for the FX series that I am not one of those people, so everything it dramatized felt more or less new, kind of like I was being taught something. That's the case even more so with Ezra Edelman's extraordinary film (which premiered at Sundance and played in select theaters before debuting on television, so it will qualify for Oscar consideration as a documentary feature), that not only takes us back to the trial, but operates on a much more ambitious scope, as it encompasses the entire story of Simpson's life as a celebrated football player and celebrity before the murders, and also takes us through the history of racism in Los Angeles and the relationship of the black community to the LAPD for decades before the trial took place.
The historical context makes all the difference in understanding the impact of the story and the reason for the reactions that took place as the shocking verdict was read in 1995. You may have some knowledge of the systemic racism within the police department in LA, and you may remember the Rodney King riots, which occurred shortly before the murders and rocked the city to its core, but seeing history unfold through mostly live footage and hearing witnesses explain what they felt through years of seeing one injustice after another is an illuminating experience on its own. To juxtapose it with the story of OJ Simpson himself, which is almost a spectacularly Shakespearean tale of rise and fall, is at once provocative, absorbing, entertaining and emotionally stirring. Each piece of OJ's life, his childhood, his college football career, his NFL years and his amazing success within the world of white celebrity and wealth, is explored as being an essential part of his desire to run as far away as possible from the trappings of the black community, to be accepted within the white world as one of them. As opposed to other famed black athletes in the civil rights era, like Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali, he rejected the notion of black activism and sought every glory for himself and his personal standing, which led him to incredible heights in the 1970's as a celebrity and corporate spokesman.
We see the two stories play out side by side over the course of eight hours, as the documentary takes us through OJ's rise, his toxic and abusive relationship with Nicole Brown, the growing tension between the citizens of Los Angeles and the police department after every horrifying incident, and then right up to the night of the murders, where it becomes a crime novel of the highest order. The incredible media story of the murders, the Bronco chase, and the trial itself is what has always been the most publicly played out of course, but it still captivates your attention to see events unfold and the details shown as we recap the players and the storyline of the most sensational "show" of the 1990's, as Larry King himself put it. It was the beginning of the blending of news and sensationalism as entertainment, a move that was undertaken for ratings driven profits, as the line between the two categories was completely blurred, and as we see now, has utterly taken over the corporate media with 24/7 cable "news" which barely disguises itself as information obtained for the public interest.
But it was still another era, and it'd be interesting to see how a story this attention-grabbing would play in the social media age. OJ as a public personality is nothing less than compelling from the very beginning, with his tall, commanding, charismatic presence and his media-savvy at play throughout most of the trial, but Edelman is convinced that he was guilty of those crimes and makes no bones about it, as the evidence clearly showed then and now. As we see however, the verdict was almost never even about him personally. As a man who rejected the black community most of his life, a man with all the fame, wealth and power to put together a spectacular defense, he was a symbol for the wrongs that had been done over years of systemic injustice, and payback was what the jury (as one of the jurors interviewed freely admits) and much of the African-American community was after. At that time and place, it was a flashpoint that seemed inevitable, and Simpson's "dream team" of lawyers took full advantage of it.
After the trial was another story, as the film continues to show us a post-acquittal OJ, whose life changed completely as he lost most of his assets, his formerly beloved status and continued his downfall, culminating in the infamous 2008 Las Vegas robbery (which plays out like a Keystone Cops mishap) that landed him in prison with a thirty-three year sentence that would have never been bestowed upon a first time offender (as Simpson technically was in the eyes of the law), and was seen as yet another form of payback, albeit from a ridiculous situation that he placed himself in. But it's another time now, and the tragedy of Simpson as an individual stands apart from the climate of Los Angeles in the early 90's, as living with the guilt and acquittal for murdering the mother of his own children takes a separate toll on a man who who committed a crime of passion, the effects of which seem obvious to the beholder as you see the shattered caricature his life became.
If there's any part to this sprawling, epic story that leaves you wanting more, it's in the area of OJ and Nicole's marriage, which is seen in scattered detail, with occasional glimpses of Nicole's diary inscribing a long history of domestic abuse from the very beginning of their relationship, when she was an 18-year-old teenager caught up in the possessive attentions paid to her by an older, famous and powerful man. We hear snippets of outsider accounts, the audio from the infamous 911 calls, enough to know that OJ's possessiveness and rage towards his wife was all consuming at times, yet without accounts of similar behavior toward other women, his first wife or even his children, this specific relationship remains something of a hauntingly tragic mystery, an area that invites further investigation for more insight, as the state of OJ's rage on the night of the murders was the inevitable breaking point of a relationship that was clearly, in prosecutor Chris Darden's words, a "ticking time bomb."
There's a slight missed opportunity in the lack of a wider context for which to place OJ's relationship with Nicole, possibly drawing on the connection between sports culture and domestic violence, obvious territory that remains unremarked on here or in other recent events (the Ray Rice incident comes to mind). But overall, there is no doubt that this film breaches almost every avenue of the wider impact of the trial to fashion itself as required viewing when it comes recent American history. It's a towering achievement that will you leave you in awe, utterly caught up in the broader implications of the man, the times, and the impact the "OJ episode" had on America, which feels even more like a hollow victory in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, which sadly reminds us that nothing much has changed in twenty years. As for OJ himself? He has to live with what he did, what he lost and how he's seen, more as a pariah than a cultural figure, and given what we learn about the public adoration he so constantly craved, maybe that notoriety is all he has left to hold onto.