Even if you were alive and following the news at the time of the Simpson trial, reliving it through the lens of Ezra Edelman’s towering documentary O.J.: Made in America has you gasping again and again at all the details you’d somehow forgotten, and dozens more that somehow slipped your radar. The Simpson trial had it all: murder, sex, betrayal, lies, infidelity, shoddy police work, incompetent lawyers, vengeful jurors, and race – lots and lots of race. Made in America is an exhaustive look back at the circus surrounding the Trial of the Century.
The arc of Simpson’s life hits a dizzying number of signposts of the American experience: raised in the projects, football hero at USC and in the NFL, married his high school sweetheart and had 3 kids, an unprecedented career as a spokesman, actor, broadcaster…. And the murder of his second wife, Nicole Brown, of which he was acquitted.
Part of what makes Edelman’s film so engrossing is that he doesn’t just tell you about Simpson’s background, growing up in the projects of San Francisco, and his time at USC. He also zooms out to properly set the stage on which Simpson’s life unspools, putting him in the context of the Watts riots, the Civil Rights movement, and the Ali Summit, among other crucial cultural moments. And Edelman does a similarly effective job of making sure his audience understands the ugly history of the Los Angeles Police Department, and the way in which its tactics engendered decades of mistrust and resentment that simmer to this day. But Edelman is no apologist, he’s not letting anyone off the hook, he just wants you to know what’s swirling in and around everyone’s head as they play their part in this spectacle.
Simpson’s place in the American conversation on race is incredible to behold. After his teenage years, which included a brief incarceration, he arrived at USC as a polished, well-spoken, mild-mannered young man. As his fame grew he resisted entreaties from Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and other athletes to be more political; he stepped out on his wife, sleeping almost exclusively with white woman; and brushed off friends being called the “n word” because he was so pleased he himself wasn’t seen as black. But following his acquittal, he began courting black America, visiting black churches, donning dashikis, eating chicken and waffles (former agent and friend Mike Gilbert accused him of having never before eaten the dish in his life), and appearing in joke rap videos. The man was desperate to find a new home in society after become a pariah among white Americans, and one can hardly blame him, as cynical as it may have appeared, because for all his indifference to issues of race before his trial, Black America stood by him throughout the trial and beyond.
While Simpson is clearly the villain, Made in America reminds you of or introduces you to a host of characters with morals and ethics that fall well short of ideal. Gilbert, a white man who was in Simpson’s camp for two decades, seems sympathetic at first, until you realize that he was working with and profiting off of him long after he became convinced of his guilt. The notorious Mark Fuhrman, who ultimately became the one on trial for his vile racist language, at one point blames the Rodney King riots on the fact that the LAPD had banned the chokehold, arguing that the confrontation could’ve been over in 10 seconds. There’s the clown show of guys surrounding the infamous Las Vegas robbery that ultimately sent O.J. to prison for nine years.
And then there’s Johnnie Cochran, the legendary defense attorney, whose willingness to push the envelope in defense of his client seemed boundless. He compared Fuhrman to Hitler and had Simpson’s home redecorated for the benefit of the three-quarters black jury, replacing photos of O.J. with almost exclusively white people with photos of O.J. with mostly black people, the icing on that cake being Cochran’s own print of the Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” depicting 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted by U.S. marshals during the battle for school desegregation, which was moved from Cochran’s office to the top of Simpson’s stairwell.
Conspicuously absent from the proceedings is Christopher Darden, the prosecuting attorney who will forever be remember for one of the great courtroom gaffes of all time: Asking Simpson to try on the infamous blood-soaked gloves. It was a decision his colleagues argued against, but he persisted, despite it being a gambit so wrongheaded that even one of the jurors was shocked as it was happening.
With the Simpson’s recent parole from his 2008 armed robbery conviction, coupled with the tragic events that transpired in Charlottesville, now is the perfect time to reconsider the football legend’s legacy, while also confronting the nation’s seeming inability to grapple with the issue of race. O.J.: Made in America considers both these complicated issues from almost every possible angle, providing mountains of detail and information, without pretending to have any easy answers.
All five episodes of O.J.: Made in America are available on-demand on ESPN.