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.