It’s that time of year.
“10 Best” lists are proliferating, movies are hashed and rehashed and opinions are flown with abandon (“You moron!” How could you not mention X!”). One of the more interesting inclusions in this year’s set isn’t a movie in the traditional sense, but a five-part, eight-hour documentary—director Ezra Edelman’s marathon, “O.J.: Made in America” (not to be confused with the FX docudrama, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” starring Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Courtney B. Vance). The plaudits are well-earned.
What makes “O.J.: Made in America” a singular experience is the context in which Edelman has us view not just the details of Simpson’s trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman, but the nature of his life and celebrity. What gives the documentary its depth is Edelman’s juxtaposition of Simpson’s privileged existence with the long history of police abuse suffered by the African-American community of Los Angeles. “O.J.: Made in America” examines every thread that still exists in the social and political tapestry of America—Race. Celebrity worship, but more accurately, jock worship. The entitlement granted to athletes. Domestic violence. Media irresponsibility. The advantages the rich possess in dealing with the justice system. Jury bias.
Race is the primary theme of the documentary and rightly so, given the subject and the setting. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Simpson’s story is that a man who seemingly moved heaven and earth to present himself as devoid of color (his watchword was “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”) became a symbol of black oppression to the African-American community. We see how carefully Simpson constructed his image, and the lengths to which corporate America further encouraged that image (As several interview subjects note, O.J. was always surrounded and cheered on by whites, not blacks, in the commercials he did for Hertz and other products). We also see how Simpson cultivated a social and professional circle that was predominantly white at a time when the African-American community of Los Angeles suffered one outrage after another at the hands of the LAPD. The contrast couldn’t be greater.
Edelman doesn’t flinch when presenting Simpson’s abuse of Nicole Brown, his second wife (his first marriage, to a black woman, remains largely unexamined). The number of interviewees who admit they knew what was going on will make your blood boil; if it doesn’t, Simpson’s sports show interview subsequent to his arrest for domestic violence certainly will. Simpson is so full of “It was New Year’s Eve—we both had too much to drink and things got out of hand. The press is making a mountain out of molehill,” while Roy Firestone, his interviewer, drips sympathy. Then you see the photos of Nicole’s damaged face, and hear a cop describe yet another occasion when a beaten Nicole summoned help. This officer actually arrested Simpson, but his superiors swept the entire incident under the rug because “Hey man, it’s O.J.!” You wonder how many free passes he actually received—and whether those who knew but excused Simpson’s behavior were able to sleep at night after Nicole’s murder.
There’s no doubt that the manner in which these victims died reflects how personal these crimes were to the killer. The savagery of the wounds inflicted and their number speak volumes (Warning: Photos of the victims and the murder scene are displayed at length in Episode 4 as Assistant Prosecutor Bill Hodgson describes the probable sequence of events in graphic detail). Contrary to the defense’s theory, it’s inconceivable that this was the work of a gang or a hired killer, both of whom kill far more efficiently—and quickly. No stranger would have created a blood trail that led directly from the murder scene to Simpson’s Ford Bronco to his front door and then to his bedroom. If you weren’t convinced before, “O.J.: Made in America” leaves you with little doubt that Simpson committed these crimes.
Edelman presents a straightforward account of Simpson’s trial for murder, and doesn’t hesitate to point fingers at Judge Lance Ito’s weakness in controlling the proceedings or the mistakes of the prosecution and law enforcement, of which there were many: District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s politically correct decision to try the case in Central Los Angeles, which virtually guaranteed a jury pool unsympathetic to the police and the prosecution; the late addition of Chris Darden to the prosecution team and his role in the trial, which made him Uncle Tom incarnate in the eyes of a predominantly black jury; Marcia Clark’s unshakeable belief that she had exceptional communication skills with female African-American jury members, despite a consultant’s findings to the contrary (The consensus of test panels? “Marcia Clark = bitch”); the infamous request to have Simpson try on those gloves, leading to Johnnie Cochran’s refrain to the jury: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
However, Edelman also notes that the jury was not exactly free of bias. The prosecution’s jury consultant cites a high percentage of African-American women on his test panels who hated Nicole Brown and viewed her as a homewrecker, despite the fact that Simpson never for a moment remained faithful during his first marriage. Two of the Simpson jurors, both African-American women, are also interviewed; one firmly states: “Let me tell you something, I lose respect for a woman who takes an ass-whuppin’ when she doesn’t have to…Don’t stay in the water if it’s over your head. You’ll drown.” Add Mark Fuhrman’s racist remarks, errors in evidence-gathering at the crime scene, the long history between the LAPD and the black community, and the ungodly length of the trial for this sequestered jury, and the final result should not have been surprising.
The participants in “O.J.: Made in America” include some well-known faces: Gil Garcetti, Marcia Clark, F. Lee Bailey, Mark Fuhrman and friends and members of the Brown and Goldman families. However, far more interesting observations come from others. One stand-out is a childhood friend of Simpson who to this day believes in O.J.’s innocence, though every anecdote he relates only attests to how self-centered and slippery the man was, even as a young teenager. We also hear from Ron Shipp, a former football player turned cop and O.J.’s friend for many years, who, being thoroughly familiar with the extent of abuse inflicted on Nicole, ends up testifying for the prosecution. While the prosecution team more or less owns up to its mistakes, Edelman shrewdly lets the members of Simpson’s Dream Team of attorneys run on, thus allowing them to reveal themselves, and not always for the better. Carl E. Douglas boasts of more than one act of ethical flim-flammery, F. Lee Bailey (later disbarred, though Edelman doesn’t tell us that) unfurls his ego yet again, and Barry Scheck dodges and squirms when questioned about his trial conduct. And finally, Edelman pulls no punches when it comes to the press—there’s no doubt that their coverage, from the Ford Bronco chase to the acquittal, clearly shows the news establishment squandering whatever journalistic credibility it had only to end up as merely yet another vehicle for mass entertainment.
Simpson’s acquittal and the vociferous enthusiasm this met in the African-American community shocked white America. In retrospect neither is surprising given the racial history of this country. Those in the community who thought otherwise seem to have been pressured to keep silent. We hear from a black minister in Los Angeles who thought from the beginning that Simpson was guilty; his response when the verdict was announced? “I saw a rich guy get off.” Color trumped wealth in the eyes of many (“Now you know what it feels like,” says a community activist, even today), yet time has made some of the outspoken more thoughtful. The female juror quoted above, when asked how she feels about the verdict today, hesitates and her conflict is visible. She bails with “It was what it was,” but there’s no escaping that justice was denied for these victims.
Yet an acquittal does not an innocent person make, at least in the eyes of the public. It’s clear that Simpson evidently thought the verdict would reset the clock and he could return to his pre-trial life. Not so, and I’m not sure this was entirely due to race; one of F. Lee Bailey’s previous clients, Dr. Sam Sheppard, endured a similar professional and social decline following his ultimate acquittal. Having covered Simpson’s ascent, the documentary proceeds to cover his descent, culminating in his conviction and lengthy sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping stemming from a confrontation over stolen O.J. memorabilia.
Made in America indeed.