‘O.J.: Made in America’ Is Essential Viewing
I’m a freshman in high school. After months of legal proceedings, the jury finally reaches a verdict in the O.J. Simpson case. For the only time in my four years of secondary education, everything stops. Several classes pile into the only room with a cable television. The place is packed. Kids are literally sitting on each other's laps. It gets quiet.
“We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder.”
Gasps. Screams. Dozens of children and several adults all sit in disbelief.
At least that’s my memory. But that’s not quite how it happened.
ESPN’s new 7.5 hour documentary mini-series, O.J.: Made in America, reminded me that the verdict was announced on October 3, 1995, which means I was a sophomore, not a freshman. (My confusion, I now realize, came from the fact that the television was in my freshman year social studies teacher’s room.) That, in a nutshell, is what this astonishing film does. For those who were around back then, it brings context and renewed clarity to those dimly remembered events. For those who weren’t, it provides insight into what it was like for people of all races to live through those times, and reveals how much of our modern social, political, and cultural landscape originated in this one particular case. In the process, it turns one of the defining moments of its decade into one of the best television shows (and movies) of the year so far.
The man at its center is O.J. Simpson. Over the course of five 90-minute episodes, Made in America dissects his life and times. Though Simpson’s infamous murder trial came to dominate his image and reputation, it doesn’t even become the focus of director Ezra Edelman’s series until Episode 3. Instead, Made in America spends more than three full hours first establishing Simpson’s history, and the way issues like race, class, wealth, and celebrity not only made O.J. the man he was when he was accused of murder, but also made Los Angeles the place it was when Simpson was arrested and later found not guilty despite a mountain of incriminating physical evidence.
Edelman and his team of editors do a magnificent job of balancing all of their various threads; Simpson’s biography, the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and the recurring incidents of racism within the LAPD. All of these subjects have been chronicled in earlier films, TV shows, and articles, but rarely together, all at once. At 450 minutes, Made in America is able to draw connections that viewers would have had to previously make on their own through multiple sources. It’s as detailed as a great history book and as addictive as an airport novel. It moves with the downfield speed of its Hall of Fame subject, but never sacrifices depth for pacing. (With more than 70 different interview subjects from every facet of Simpson’s life, along with journalists, witnesses, jurors, police officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, it’s also a lot more balanced than this year’s other zeigeisty true-crime docu-series, Making a Murder.)
Seven and a half hours might sound like more movie than is necessary for a case this familiar, but even with the thousands of hours of media coverage that already exist, Made in America still contains numerous revelations, including several shocking admissions from O.J.’s former agent about his client’s various confessions and evasions through the years. (Wait until you hear the one about the notorious leather glove that didn’t fit at trial.) Edelman spends so much time on both Simpson’s and the LAPD’s violent pasts that even before the murders have been committed, it seems impossible that Simpson was innocent— and also very easy to understand how he was found not guilty by a jury fed up with a system that excused one example of police abuse after another.
While the series lends itself to one giant binge, each individual episode is rich enough to stand on its own; it’s kind of like watching five good-to-great movies back-to-back. And while Edelman pulls no punches as far as Simpson’s crimes, he also finds room to show the complexities within a man who was both beloved and reviled by millions. I finished Made in America more convinced than ever of Simpson’s guilt, but I also understood more fully than ever why so many people wanted him to be innocent. In a world of instant hot takes and 140-character limit social media, almost everything gets boiled down to stark, simplistic binaries. O.J.: Made in America makes the case for patience, self-reflection, and comprehensiveness. Even in black and white matters, things are rarely simple. This movie certainly is not.
The first episode of O.J.: Made in America premieres Saturday, June 11 on ABC. The remaining four episodes air next week on ESPN.