To many younger people who watch ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “O.J.: Made In America”, Simpson is primarily known as the man in the enthralling Bronco chase, or the Black man who was acquitted of killing his wife.
To people who were able to see his ascension to superstardom in real time, Simpson was the best running back to ever play the game and one of the most popular athletes in the country, from college to the pros.
But to those who watched his ascension and descent, it also represents something much deeper.
“This story, to me, is a profound American story in that it’s so interconnected between issues of race, class, gender, masculinity, and the criminal justice system. You can’t focus on one thing and properly tell this story,” director Ezra Edelman said to reporters at a private screening of the documentary’s first two parts in New York City.
The most interesting part about the documentary isn’t O.J. Simpson, but the “Made In America” part of the title. Edelman goes through painstaking detail to depict decades of racism over the course of decades, but not in mere footnote fashion.
He uses every bit of the documentary’s nearly eight hours of run time, making viewers virtually relive these traumatic events and conditions as if they were happening all over again. Well-known instances like the Rodney King beating and the 1992 Los Angeles race riots make appearances, but other moments are handled with just equal, and deserving, heft.
For examples: the 1979 shooting of Eula Love, a single mother of three who was killed in an altercation with police that stemmed from a past-due $69 gas bill; and the killing of Latasha Harlins, an unarmed black teenager who was suddenly shot dead by the owner of a grocery store, less than two weeks after the Rodney King beating.
The film also shows how divisive some of these issues still are: police officers in the film still puzzlingly defend the Rodney King beating as being reasonable police action. The film also shows the blatant, everyday racism in Los Angeles and around the country, showing that it wasn’t just a matter of bookended events.
The goal of showing such things, Edelman said, was to convey the pain that black people have suffered in this country – and why black people were so happy to see Simpson emerge from the murder trial. His exoneration represented a Black man’s victory in a system where fair shots for Black men and women are low.
“If you end up watching the things that have been done, everyone has been so fascinated by the trial, and what happened over this 15-month period, and the question of whether he did or didn’t do it. Those aren’t things that were that interesting to me,” he said. “…I thought the way to helped people understand the story freshly, is to really dive deep into explaining.
“To a white person, you never understood why black folks were so invested in the trial, or why they reacted the way they did in the verdict. I want you to emotionally connect with a series of events, and history, to make you able to empathize. You need to really stop and live through it again.”
With nearly eight hours of playtime, it’s not binge-ready like the other series hitting the internet these days. But “O.J.: Made In America” pulls out all the stops, and everyone who watches should have something to learn.
Along with the more expansive idea of depicting the times, “O.J.: Made In America” also delivers by bringing interviews with people who don’t appear in other O.J. documentaries. Simpson’s childhood friend Joe Bell, detective Mark Fuhrman, former police officer and O.J. buddy Ron Shipp, former Hertz CEO Frank Olsen, and others bring totality and nuance to the O.J. story.
“This isn’t a story that anyone wanted to revisit. And for a lot of people involved in the story, this is a yearly ritual – they get tons of phone calls from every media outlet, wanting to talk to them. How do you convince these people that what you're doing is worthwhile, and that you’re different,” Edelman said. “Once you sit down and people realize that you’ve thought about this, this is a much bigger treatment and a real historical document. I think people realize that this is a worthwhile thing to participate in.”