O.J.: Made in America
Consider this: Two-fifths of the way through O.J.: Made in America, we have not yet reached the night of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murders. The FX series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson opened on June 12, 1994, the night of the murders, and the themes related to the trial — institutional racism, sexism, domestic violence, celebrity, social and criminal justice, et al. — all surface from the period when the murders and the trial were in the public eye. Ezra Edelman’s documentary, by contrast, views the Simpson case as more of a cultural flash point, the accumulation of longstanding troubles that built up in Simpson’s life and marriage, the city of Los Angeles, and America as a whole. And that calls for a fuller examination.
(Along the same lines, if Edelman wants to put together Trump: Made in America this November, I’d happily watch all 100 hours of it.)
Edelman’s thesis is that Simpson’s “not guilty” verdict was preordained, a perversion of justice that can only be explained by other perversions of justice. The verdict was a response to a long history of distrust between the LAPD and the black community — and a rational one at that, despite the jury’s startlingly frank disregard of evidence in the case. In this second episode, Made in America continues to support its argument masterfully by recalling incident after incident of unchecked racial hostility from the LAPD, leading up to the 1992 acquittal of four officers charged with beating Rodney King. At the same time, Edelman follows Simpson’s life after football, focusing on the pathological jealousy and serial abuse that led to Brown’s murder.
The power of Made in America comes from layering these stories, strand over strand, so we can see how the Simpson case does and doesn’t relate to the cultural forces at work in his trial, and how much he benefited from the confusion that ensued. A section about the odious racial legacy of LAPD chief Daryl Gates leads right into the clip of Simpson in A Killing Affair, a TV movie about a steamy interracial affair between detectives on a murder investigation. A long account of Operation Hammer and the indiscriminate ransacking of two apartments during a drug sweep ends with the line, “You wouldn’t go to Beverly Hills and do that.” On cue, Edelman cuts to Simpson, now a resident of affluent, nearly all-white Brentwood, shooting a promo for HBO. The line “high-stepping into your living room” applies to both situations, but in starkly different ways.
“Part Two” opens with Simpson’s retirement from football in December 1979, following a few seasons marred by injuries and diminished production. Having already established himself as an effective spokesman for Hertz, a willing (if limited) actor, and an ingratiating personality, Simpson set his sights on expanding his wealth and fame after football. That meant buddying up to white men like Hertz CEO Frank Olson, who made him the first black member of the exclusive Arcola Country Club. (Recalling the time Simpson brought Sidney Portier to the club as a guest, Olson says, “Even the bigots thought that was terrific.”) That meant more TV appearances, a whirl in the broadcast booth, and a near-constant stream of celebrities, politicians, athletes, and other VIPs at Simpson’s Rockingham estate, which Edelman likens to Graceland.
Simpson’s success came with a sense of entitlement turned deadly, a belief that he not only could have it all, but couldn’t be denied what he wanted. After meeting Nicole Brown at a club, he told a friend that he would marry her — and he did so in short order, despite already having a wife. He freed himself to have affairs without the small courtesy of discretion, but was enraged by the thought of Nicole with another man, no matter the floundering state of their marriage. In one incredible anecdote, Simpson even felt entitled to be a better golfer than his ungainly form allowed. He was so prone to cheating that his buddies hired a caddy, dubbed “the Juice patrol,” to catch him cheating. (Given the insane conspiracy theory his defense team later concocted to throw reasonable doubt over the chain of evidence at the trial, a golf ball landing on a tee after an errant shot seems prophetic.)
“Part Two” also details dueling views of a police force under fire. Gil Garcetti, the L.A. County District Attorney on the case (whose son is now mayor), believes “70 to 80 percent” of residents view the LAPD favorably. The others? Not so much. Edelman sketches a decade of benchmarks for racial injustice — Eulia Love gunned down over a gas bill, the Operation Hammer raids, the wrist slap given to a grocer for shooting a black teenage girl in the back of the head, and, finally, Rodney King — while detailing Simpson’s cozy relationship with Brentwood police, who tucked away damning reports of his spousal abuse. As one subject notes, there are people in South L.A. who weren’t even aware of Brentwood’s existence, so distant is one world from the other.
(One vile piece of connective tissue: Mark Fuhrman, the detective whose racist statements severely undermined the prosecution’s case while stoking the theory that the evidence was planted. Regarding the Rodney King case, Fuhrman makes the typically repugnant observation that the King beating could have been prevented had “the choke hold” not been outlawed. Tell that to Eric Garner’s family.)
The closing stretch of the episode persuasively argues that murder was the inevitable end to Simpson’s pattern of abuse. In a trial defined by competing narratives, this is the story the prosecution would tell: that Brown was battered and terrorized by her husband, that she believed he would kill her some day, and that those fears were eventually realized. Edelman has the harrowing 911 calls and the journal entries to back it all up. He has testimony from friends concerned for her safety and the policeman who kept a copy of the last police report. He makes note of the date, May 22, 1994, when the couple officially split and O.J. knew he had no more second chances. Less than a month later, Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were dead.