'O.J.: Made in America': Sundance Review
Premiering at Sundance, ESPN Films and 30 for 30's first miniseries is a rich and provocative triumph.
Any trepidation at dedicating 10 hours (7.5 hours without commercials) to a documentary miniseries about O.J. Simpson passes very early into Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday (January 22) and will air on ESPN this summer.
Working with an epic tapestry that lets him cover the racial history of Los Angeles, the football career of a legendary running back, the trial of the century and a complicated psychological portrait all in one film, Edelman proves to be a remarkably confident storyteller on every front. O.J.: Made in America is a provocative, intelligent and thorough documentary that tears along at an impressive clip given its length, with tragedy around every corner. The first miniseries to air under the ESPN Films and 30 for 30 banners, it also instantly takes its place among the banner's best efforts.
For the O.J.-phobic or those whose interest in The Juice may be limited, it's worth noting that O.J.: Made in America neither usurps, nor is made superfluous by FX's very good The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. With Jeffrey Toobin serving as a consultant for FX and a featured talking head for ESPN, it's no surprise that there are many points of overlap when the two miniseries cover shared terrain, but they're wholly complementary texts and they're probably airing in exactly the right order. The events depicted in People v. O.J. Simpson get new layers of insight and reflective shading in Made in America, which also goes far wider in establishing context.
The name "O.J. Simpson" has become synonymous with "double homicide trial" in the minds of many Americans, particularly the full generation of potential viewers born in the last 25 years, but Edelman doesn't get to the events of June 1994 until the beginning of the third night, more than three hours in if you're skipping commercials. The documentary starts with Simpson at a parole hearing for the crime he's currently incarcerated for as Simpson boasts about his success as a prison sports coach, only to have his confidence eroded instantly by the observation, "I do see that in 1994, you were arrested at the age of 46." From there, we flash back to Simpson's USC days and go from there.
Edelman's approach is chronological with periodic elegant detours. With assists from former teammates and a wealth of archival footage of The Juice breaking off long runs, Edelman covers the emergence of Simpson as a dominating sports force, but when the time is right, he tracks back to explain the migration of African-Americans from impoverished parts of the South to the alleged paradise of Los Angeles and then the striking reality that met them, concentrating on the Watts riots and the conditions that ignited them. Edelman also goes back to Simpson's youth in San Francisco, with family members and friends telling often hilarious stories about his nascent charisma and how it got him into and kept him out of trouble. The pieces fit together to illustrate what it meant to be O.J. Simpson, what it meant to be black in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s and how those factors shaped Simpson's racial identity and led directly to his relationship with Nicole Brown and the horrifying events that followed. To understand why the trial captured the attention it did, it helps to know what O.J. Simpson represented to Madison Avenue and to Hollywood and maybe what he didn't represent to the community that looked at him as a hero with conflicted eyes. Hertz CEO Frank Olson, commercial director Fred Levinson and Capricorn One director Peter Hyams offer intriguingly myopic perspective on the latter, a slew of civil rights leaders and Los Angeles residents from Harry Edwards to Danny Bakewell to Walter Mosley unpack the latter.
While FX's scripted miniseries lets the Rodney King beating and verdict stand in as a representative backdrop, Edelman has the time to talk about Latasha Harlins, about the drug raid at 39th and Dalton, about the myriad conditions that created the great divide on opinions of O.J. and the LAPD when that trial captured headlines.
Taking up nearly two nights of Made in America, the trial is given tremendous and gripping depth. It's easier to list the few living participants who didn't talk for the documentary — Judge Ito, A.C. Cowlings, Kato Kaelin and Christopher Darden — than to go through the key figures who look back sometimes with candor and sometimes with telling defensiveness. Fred Goldman and Theresa Brown appear, lest you worry that the victims become neglected. Gil Garcetti and Marcia Clark reflect on their mistaken confidence. Mark Fuhrman gives his perspective, occasionally believable, on his vilification. A half-dozen other LAPD officers go through their memories of responding to previous 911 calls and handling evidence. Carl E. Douglas, Barry Scheck and F. Lee Bailey talk about the Dream Team and key moments like that glove that, as you may have heard, didn't fit. Zoey Tur shares stories of finding the white Bronco from the sky in the famous pursuit. Two jurors explain their votes. It's just outstanding.
Here also, Edelman steers the story with unfailing instincts. Talking heads are often introduced in the least assuming ways possible, described as "Friend" or "LAPD" or "Local Resident" so as not to tip their crucial roles in the unfolding drama. The crime scene photos from the double murder are initially left unseen, but the most graphic of images appear onscreen when they represent a turning point for an interview subject or when Edelman suspects the audience has slipped into complacence. And after remaining a silent observing figure for the first few nights, Edelman's voice is repeatedly heard as he tries to shake some of these figures from the stories they've repeated for decades. It's tremendously satisfying how frequently Edelman correctly anticipated the questions I had, the points I wanted clarified and the follow-ups that needed prodding.
Edelman has admitted he found no new evidence for Made in America and there's no smoking gun or confession you may have forgotten. Potential motivation may be one of the few places Edelman stumbles, tossing out information about Simpson's relationship with his father and Nicole's relationship with Marcus Allen without the follow-through that characterizes the rest of the documentary.
Made in America also ends with a fifth night that is inevitably anti-climactic, but within the arc that Edelman builds, it's beautifully anticlimactic. The O.J. Simpson story starts with an extended supernova of fame across many tiers — the Heisman, the rushing records, the prominence as an actor — but where it progresses — the criminal trial verdict, the civil trial finding, the Las Vegas farce — it's all one pyrrhic victory after another. Edelman ends what is likely to be one of the year's richest entertainment events in a place of comfortable discomfort that never coddles you into believing that the issues raised by and surrounding Simpson's story have been resolved. There's a lot to unpack here about how the criminal justice system handles racial minorities, how it handles rich people and the awkward and unique singularity that occurred when O.J. Simpson, a man who spent a lifetime running from classification, found himself facing judgment and Edelman and ESPN have honored this conversation.
Premieres in June on ESPN.