If you’re not familiar with the story of O.J. Simpson, just do yourself a favour and give it a quick Google – it is well worth your time. The man has certainly had a colourful life; the pinnacle of his sport for so many years and a bonafide superstar, moving into film & TV before his ultimate downfall, being accused of murdering his estranged wife and her friend. This seven-and-a-half-hour documentary-epic (two words I rarely see together) follows the life of the man who was an icon that transcended race and colour, a celebrity marred by scandal later in life leading to his ultimate downfall. A true American tragedy.
However, the Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner that is O.J.: Made in America is not ultimately about O.J. Simpson as much as it is about the climate in the US at the time, and that is what makes it brilliant. Director Ezra Edelman initially declined the project, stating at the time that there was “nothing left to say about it”. He eventually agreed, realising that O.J.’s story could be used as a canvas for a much deeper undertaking: the story of race in America and the relationship between community and authority. With this backdrop, Edelman creates a detailed portrait of the man and the environment that created him.
Through fantastic editing, intercutting important racial bookmarks in American history – such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the brutal assault on Rodney King and the murder of Latasha Harlins and Eulia May Love – with O.J.’s rise as a spokesperson for Hertz, playing golf and his roasting by Bob Hope for essentially being a timid black man, Edelman demonstrates his craftsmanship. He makes it clear point that O.J. tried to stay away from cultural and racial talks. O.J. said he was no “race man” and avoided using his influence to advance the cause of black rights, something most African-American athletes were doing at the time. “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
The film itself is can be split up into three distinct acts. The first, mirroring O.J.’s rise into sports superstardom and the ever-growing racial tensions in America, and more specifically, the juxtaposition of O.J. and his closest friends, all the while getting commentary from some prominent activists to paint a picture of the bleak and tense world at the time. We then get a distinct insight of the infamous trial, and the hysteria surrounding it, continuing with the established theme of O.J. being a product of his environment. With interviews with key players, like the prosecutor Marcia Clark, O.J.’s defense team, the police officers that investigated the crime and even the jurors that sat on the trial, Edelman is able to give the viewer a deep insight into the hysteria that surrounded the case for all parties. We’re provided an ugly snapshot of America at the time, where logic and reason were replaced by battlelines of colour. This is driven home with the powerful admission by a sitting juror that her decision to acquit was direct payback for the lack of justice served to the officers that beat Rodney King. “Payback” being the precise word used.
The final act is, unfortunately, the weakest and the shortest, focusing on the aftermath of O.J.’s trial as he became a social pariah and fell back on the African-American community that he once shunned at his peak. Again a product of the people around him, his new friends and life led him down a path of destruction. The pacing, editing and overall content are perfectly balanced for 6 hours and 45 minutes of this film, but unfortunately it’s here where the film becomes quite rapid. It suffers in comparison to the slower, more methodical and deliberate pace used in the previous portions.
A final act stumble aside, O.J.: Made In America is completely engaging and staggeringly well made. There is so much in this film (or series, depending on how you watch it) that you could talk about it and dissect it for days. A documentary-epic that takes an in-depth, culturally relevant look at the environment that created that legend of Orenthal James Simpson, and ultimately brought him right down. Must-see viewing.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10