Director Ezra Edelman takes the wide view with his documentary “O.J.: Made in America”, as its five comprehensive parts go to show. Edelman is not merely interested in the notorious trial in which his titular subject, football star and media personality O.J. Simpson, was acquitted of the murders of his wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman, but interested in O.J.’s entire persona, and how his trial related to America, and how it still resonates today. Thus, Edelman begins with O.J.’s successful football run at the University of Southern California and then tracks him all the way to that cut-rate crime in Las Vegas populated by a band of wannabe Elmore Leonard characters that landed Simpson in a Nevada penitentiary. And while the middle parts do focus heavily on the crime and the ensuing court case, Edelman is not re-trying it. He operates from the assumption that more or less everyone watching assumes O.J. did it. Instead Edelman re-examines the trial’s larger context, and how Simpson, who in mantaining an elusiveness so as to foster some affable All-American brand (“I’m not black, I’m O.J.”), indvertently set himself up as the perfect vessel for a fierce morality play on race in modern America.
In allowing cameras into his courtroom to capture the so-called Trial of the Century, hapless Judge Lance Ito unwittingly authorized production on America’s first reality show, a terrifying thing to re-consider given how justice for two murdered people was on the line. And you are momentarily worried as “O.J.: Made in America” progresses that it too is forgetting about Ron Goldman. But that’s by design. He was, after all, tragically so, collateral damage in the absurd media spectacle, and Edelman wants that thought to linger, before he addresses Goldman, and in particular Goldman’s long-suffering family in depth. They get their moment, as they should, and among the most resonant details here is Ron Goldman’s father somberly remarking that his son’s dreams never went away. If in some ways O.J. was the American Dream gone wrong, it is important to never forget that Goldman was unfairly prevented from the opportunity of even trying to see his American Dream through in the first place.
The documentary does not, however, become as much of a referendum on domestic violence in America. It certainly does not shy away from the fact that O.J. physically abused his wife, and hearing Simpson, whose voice had been so indoctrinated into pop culture as good-natured, on 911 tapes shouting in the background gives you a window into the world she endured. What precisely led him to repeatedly injure Nicole is only tangentially raised, and O.J.’s friends, or his former friends, seem unable or unwilling to shed any light. Indeed, it’s truly jaw-dropping how many times O.J.’s confidantes admit blindness to Simpson’s worst attributes, and cop to their desire to repeatedly forgive and forget even as red flags were continually raised.
One of the jurors interviewed openly states that Nicole was at fault for not leaving O.J. earlier, unveiled victim blaming, before later conceding that she, and others on the jury, saw their letting O.J. off less as commentary on the poor argument rendered by the prosecution and more as payback for Rodney King and other injustices perpetrated on the black community in Los Angeles by the city’s police department. And throughout the documentary, Edelman expertly interweaves the LAPD’s story, what it did right, what it did wrong, interviewing a myriad of past members, including Mark Fuhrman, who is interviewed in depth, the infamous detective who found the bloody glove that perhaps would have done O.J. in if Fuhrman had not perjured himself on the witness stand and been unveiled as a racist. If in many ways Rodney King became the emblem of the abuse so many blacks suffered at the hands of the LAPD then Mark Fuhrman became the emblem of what many perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the LAPD’s rotted racist core, and Edelman captures how in many ways the trial of O.J. Simpson was turned around to become a trial against the LAPD with Mark Fuhrman as its star witness.
Fuhrman, in fact, is crucial to the film’s most polarizing moment, a recounting of the L.A. Riots and how members of the Black Community, engulfed with rage, vandalized and set fires within their own neighborhoods. Remembering this, Mark Furhman shakes his head, explaining that he cannot fathom how doing that one’s own community proves anything. The film then cuts directly to a black activist who explains that African-American citizens knew vandalism and arson was the only way their community would ever get attention. And in those two statements emerges the continual disconnect between whites and blacks in America, the inability, or unwillingness, to see the other side.
In standing back and casting such a wide net, Edelman’s film is able to see these two sides to the same story, and intrinsically asks us to do the same. When Judge Ito invited those cameras into the courtroom, he was operating under the influence that he could give a national tutorial on the process of the law. Instead he gave us front row seats to a national conversation on America’s original, enduring sin. If Simpson became an unwitting vessel for us to have that conversation in 1995, here he is again, in this incendiary summer of 2016, forcing the same questions upon us. The onus is on us to answer them honestly this time and do something about it; it always is.