TV Review: ‘O.J.: Made in America’

OJ Simpson Made in America ESPN
Courtesy of ESPN

With FX’s 10-hour dramatization of the O.J. Simpson trial premiering in February, one might think an ESPN documentary of equal length — due to air this spring, but getting a preview at the Sundance Film Festival — would represent serious O.J. overkill. That would be a misconception. “O.J.: Made in America” takes its title to heart, adding rich contextual layers to the case, including a dive into the history of Los Angeles race relations that played such a central role in his acquittal. Having previewed three of five chapters, there’s an abundance of highlights between the kickoff and end zone.

Writer-director Ezra Edelman has been provided an enormous canvas, one that allows him to cut back and forth between the football star’s seemingly charmed life and the world that surrounded him. He has responded with, even in the annals of ESPN’s “30 for 30” docs, what feels like a master opus — one that deals with the nexus of race, celebrity and sports, and the strange juxtaposition of a figure who prided himself on transcending color, yet ultimately relied upon it when charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ronald Goldman.

The time afforded the filmmakers allows them to go well beyond the surface, drilling into Simpson’s breakthrough success at USC, record-setting NFL career and seamless segue to the role of product pitchman, racing through airports in those ubiquitous Hertz ads. “His Horatio Alger story was based on him being a pleasing person to white people,” one whose closest associates are described as “super-wealthy, powerful white men,” as journalist Robert Lipsyte notes.

Yet Simpson also achieved fame in the 1960s, in a city where the police department, under chiefs William Parker and, in the late ’70s through the early ’90s, Daryl Gates, was viewed in African-American neighborhoods as an “occupying force.” Edelman proceeds to methodically chronicle events that strained relations and diminished trust in the justice system, from the 1965 Watts Riots to the 1991 Rodney King beating, and including the killings of teenager Latasha Harlins that year by a store owner, and Eula Love by the police, the latter 1979 incident precipitated by an overdue gas bill.

Simpson, it’s noted, steered clear of these societal issues even when they collided with sports. At a time when other athletes were speaking out — including Muhammad Ali’s conscientious-objector status and John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s silent “black power” protest at the 1968 Olympics — sociologist/activist Harry Edwards recalls Simpson saying, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.”

“Made in America” leaps back and forth among these various threads, and occasionally directly connects them, such as footage featuring Bob Hope lauding Simpson at a USC rally in ’68 (he refers to the school, as “OJU”), intercut with the King and Kennedy assassinations that also happened that year. There is also, inevitably, a dissection of the increasingly toxic arc of O.J. and Nicole’s relationship (including 911 calls stemming from incidents of domestic abuse), coupled with tidbits about his post-football endeavors, including those in Hollywood — he desperately wanted the Coalhouse Walker role in the 1981 movie adaptation “Ragtime,” which seems ironic with the benefit of hindsight.

Because Simpson has been a public figure for so long, there is no shortage of footage to document all of this, augmented by insider-ish material like recordings from his trial, where during jury selection, he complains, “The system has forced me to look at things racially.” As journalist/author Jeffrey Toobin (whose book provides the spine of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) observes, while Simpson’s case was transformed into a spectacle by his celebrity, the proceedings became “a weird referendum on the LAPD.”

Long-form crime has of course become all the rage of late, from HBO’s Robert Durst docu-series “The Jinx” to Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.” With “O.J.: Made in America,” ESPN doesn’t have the luxury of people being unfamiliar with the outcome. Nevertheless, in terms of a compelling production that tackles far more than just one man’s guilt or innocence, Edelman appears to have delivered a documentary that gives both of those acclaimed projects a run for their money.

TV Review: 'O.J.: Made in America'

(Multi-part documentary; ESPN. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival)

Production

Produced by Laylow Films.

Crew

Executive producers, Connor Schell, Libby Geist; producers, Deirdre Fenton, Erin Leyden, Ezra Edelman, Caroline Waterlow, Tamara Rosenberg; writer-director, Edelman; camera, Nick Higgins; camera, Bret Granato, Maya Mumma, Ben Sozanski. 4 ½ HOURS

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  1. Virginia says:

    I’d like to know if Simpson is earning any money from this Made in America series. If he is, I will STOP WATCHING IT and urge others to do the same!

  2. Kay says:

    “I’m not black. I’m OJ.”
    What a concept. This famous, handsome, gifted man tried to transcend race, and until he met his nemesis, which turned out to be Nicole Brown, he pretty much succeeded. Everybody wanted to be seen with O.J. He had a golden touch. He had it all.
    He was a good businessman, always on the lookout for his ‘brand’. He had genuine athletic talent. I watched him run down the field at USC, perfect in every way and couldn’t help but think about Bruce Jenner at the same age. Perfect athletes. OJ too was an all-around athlete, though he is always thought of as a football player.
    The genius of this documentary, which I saw yesterday, is how it sets OJ’s story within the context of what was happening in the US and specifically in LA.I was left with such sadness and hopelessness for the country as when I glanced at news headlines after I got home, it was to see demonstrators at a Donald Trump rally. We never learn.
    Yes, of course OJ killed them but I found myself so wanting to think that he couldn’t have. Such was the magic of OJ.

  3. debra says:

    Ok, I have always believed OJ did it, But I am having doubts now and believe that he could have pd someone to do it.. If you go to Youtube and watch the IF it dont fit, you must acquit.video. Well the gloves didnt fit. The gloves were purchased in XLarge by Nicole. Im certain she must have purchased these exclusive gloves for OJ..but they didnt fit so the killer either stole them or was given them by Nicole or OJ most likely. Nicole was a collector or people. Look at Reznick, a druggie, Goldman and the idiot, I cant remember his name, that lived in the little apt behind her home. Now go to Netflix and watch My brother the serial killer. Glenn Rogers, a vagabond house painter and voracious serial killer claimed before the murders that he was working for her and says that OJ wanted him to steal a $20000 pair of earrings from Nicole. Glenn used a knife all the time and was in CA at or near the time this happened…He says that OJ would pay him 5000 to steal them and that OJ also said you might have to kill the bitch to get them…Glenn never needed prompted to do that, he had already stated to his brother and sister that that was his plan to kill her anyway. Hed expected her to return with Reznick, but instead she was alone and Ron showed up. There were two sets of shoe prints in blood, one was OJs..The other set was never linked to anyone. I believe OJ may have went there right after the murders and was shocked to see the violence of it all, and I believe the other set COULD have belonged to Glenn. Glenn never hid his identity. If you watch the Netflix doc called My brother the serial killer, you must watch it all. I wish they would dig up the Rogers old property and the family bone orchard. The knife could be there. Do I still believe OJ did it, probably, but I now have my doubts.

    • Alexa Diddit says:

      You aren’t considering something VERY important about the gloves. First, gloves can shrink when wet and left outside in the elements. Has been shown with the same exact glove and size in real life experiments. Second, he was wearing latex gloves before even trying them on. Unbelievable right? Third and MOST IMPORTANTLY, OJ has rheumatoid arthritis. He was taking medication for it at the time. HE STOPPED TAKING THE MEDICATION SIX WEEKS BEFORE THE GLOVE TEST, therefore INFLAMING HIS HAND SIZE! These are the three most important details I see left out all over the place online. Alan Parker, the limo driver, has a rock solid testimony that was basically ignored by the pathetic unjustified jury. He knows OJ went around back where the glove was dropped, then went inside thru the front door and answered his call, then pretended like everything was fine as he got into the limo heading for airport. Alan then notices OJ’s newly parked/crooked Bronco out on the side curb! I mean come on guys, he’s a murderer. There’s no other option. He didn’t even ask how she was killed. He didn’t even think about her when the verdict was made. It was all about HIM and if you can’t see that he’s playing victim to hide the truth, I really hope you are never on a jury letting someone guilty get away. Please look into the points I made above.

  4. Lynda Bensky says:

    I agree with you Brian, I also do not think it is OJ overkill. I’ve seen the FX show and I am looking forward to the 30 for 30. But this story won’t be complete until the public knows the details that my client Mark Fuhrman will reveal when his story is told.

  5. Merck says:

    White lives didn’t matter when OJ killed innocent people. Ron and Nicole were valued by their family. Nobody ever got any money from OJ. It would be Nice if ESPN and FX did the right thing, and offered the families some money. After all it’s Goldman, and Brown Families who they’re making money off! $$$ They didn’t choose this to happen to them!

  6. gonzo says:

    Still think that his son had something to do with helping OJ

  7. me says:

    So here they come: all the “Making a Murderer” clones, straight from no-original-thoughts-left Hollywood.

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