Few films last year had the scope and ambition of “O.J.: Made in America.” The five-part documentary earned an Oscar nomination and critical raves for the way it used O.J. Simpson’s football stardom, murder trial, and years in the wilderness, to examine celebrity culture, the criminal justice system, and race in this country.
To piece together his film, director Ezra Edelman (“Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals”) poured through archival footage of Simpson’s heroics on the playing field, film and television appearances, and the courtroom drama that played out around him after he was accused of stabbing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman to death. He also conducted 72 interviews, convincing members of Simpson’s defense team like F. Lee Bailey, as well as prosecutor Marcia Clark, to look back at their time in the media maelstrom.
As he gears up for the Oscars next weekend, Edelman spoke with Variety about why Simpson’s story is relevant, the reason he’s waiting to watch “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” and what the trial of the century can teach us about Trump.
In this film you use sports as a way to examine other aspects of society. Why is athletics a good lens through which to view larger issues that may occur beyond the playing field?
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I don’t look at this film as a sports film despite [ESPN] commissioning it. In the films I’ve made, sports is a microcosm for our culture, for a lot of the issues that plague it. I have definitely been able to use that world to explore themes beyond the field of play. Whenever I work on a film, I always think about what is the broader and deeper message that can be conveyed.
What does O.J. Simpson’s rise and fall illustrate?
I always knew that this was going to be a story through which to explore race in America. Not just with the trial, but going back to his days [playing football] at U.S.C. I understood that O.J. came up as an athlete in a fraught political era where his contemporaries and predecessors were outspoken in using their platform as athletes to address racism and other ills in society. O.J. pivoted and went another way. So that’s about race, it’s about identity, it’s about ambition. When I started looking at the story more, it became clear this was about celebrity in America. But it didn’t stop at that. In the story about identity and O.J., there’s a story about masculinity. There’s a story about class, in terms of where he came from and where he rose to. It’s the quintessential story of the American dream, and who has access to it. Then I knew it was also a story about the criminal justice system and policing in America and the media. All these themes started to form layers, one on top of the other.
We have a president who emerged from reality television. Do you see parallels between the coverage of O.J., the media climate it fostered, and the rise of Donald Trump?
What resonates is that there was a guy who was on trial for nine months for murdering two people and a year later was found responsible for their deaths and you still have people, because he was on TV every day, because he was famous, they still lose their minds when they see him in an airport. They want his autograph and they want to hug him. He’s still this familiar person that people have regard for by dent of his fame.
It’s hard not to see the connection between those two. You look at the rise of Trump, who embodies some of the same qualities that O.J. has, the narcissism, the self-absorption. I don’t know that Trump ever enjoyed the love that O.J. did. I don’t know that he made many of us feel good like O.J. did on the sport’s field, but we sort of tolerated him and we put him on TV and let him occupy this part in our culture until in many ways it was too late. You have a guy who is a reality television show host who is able to penetrate the culture through the name recognition that he had, it speaks to where we evolved from the trial itself. I think about what we are responsible for and complicit in.
I remember the trial being covered like a soap opera when it wasn’t a source of parody for “Saturday Night Live.” It seemed like a circus. Did the media fail to realize how this case was exposing deep racial divisions?
I don’t mean to denigrate anyone specifically or the media at that time, but clearly they weren’t seeing the forest for the trees. They were caught up in the soap opera nature of the trial, or being fixated on the specific characters and Marcia Clark changing her hair. The trial became this referendum on something else. It became about where we were at that time in the city of Los Angeles as far as criminal justice went. Somehow we lost sight of that. This is why history is important. This is why documentary storytelling is important. It can take two decades to be able to look at that moment in a sober fashion and to look at how we got to that place.
The film includes graphic pictures from the crime scene of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s bodies. Why did you show those images?
The trial became about everything but those two victims. The brutality of that crime got lost. I felt it was necessary to starkly remind people that two lives were lost and they were lost in this brutal fashion. Everyone got caught up in their own personal politics and how they aligned with the trial, but in the end this should have been about these two people who were murdered.
If you were someone who was cheering for O.J. to get off or thought it was possible he was framed or maybe that your greater interest at that time was in this very real history of injustice suffered by African-Americans in the criminal justice system, well two injustices don’t make a right. If you look at what this man potentially did, it’s hard to look at him the same way.
Did you watch FX’s “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”? Were you concerned about having your film come out within months of its debut?
When you’re making an almost eight hour documentary and you find almost half way through the process that someone is making a ten-hour television series, the news isn’t met with joy. It was unfortunate timing. We went to the [Television Critics Association press tour] when were announcing the film and every reporter in the room had seen the first episode of the FX series, and they were all telling us how great it was. It was like, oh no, not only does this exist, but it’s really good.
I haven’t seen it, but I think it whetted people’s appetites for our film, which fills in gaps and offers historical context for the murders and the trial. From what I hear they are complementary pieces, so I think it ended up being a very good thing for us.
Why haven’t you watched the show?
I have no excuse now, except that I want to finish everything to do with our film before I reengage with the world. But for awhile I was just frustrated by the notion that in a dramatization that they could do things that I wasn’t able to do in a documentary.
I would have loved to have talked to [prosecutor] Chris Darden, and he wasn’t in our film. There was a dynamic between him and [defense attorney] Johnnie Cochran that I was fascinated by, and that I knew they could explore in a nuanced fashion. For me personally it was going to be painful to see what they could do that I couldn’t. I’ll watch it at some point this year, and I know I’ll enjoy it.