In its third segment, O.J.: Made in America finally confronts the murders and enters the realm of public knowledge. This is perilous territory, as “The Trial of the Century” was the most heavily scrutinized court case of our time. Although previous installments of the documentary were free to mingle biographical details from O.J. Simpson’s life and career with a broader history of racial strife in Los Angeles, filmmaker Ezra Edelman faces a new challenge from this point forward. He wants to show us things we don’t already know.
That is quite a tall order. As it happened, the Simpson case was covered 24/7 on cable news. It’s been the subject of countless books and magazine articles, most essentially Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life and Dominick Dunne’s Vanity Fair coverage. And most recently, of course, it was the focus of an acclaimed FX mini-series, The People v. O.J. Simpson, which Edelman did not see before making his documentary. (He says he still hasn’t watched it.)
What continues to be remarkable about Made in America is how rarely it has to “yadda yadda” through the familiar beats of Simpson’s story. Often it’s just a matter of perspective: Hearing people like Marcia Clark, Gil Garcetti, and Carl Douglas reflect on the events 20 years later provides fresh insight not only into what they were thinking at the time, but what they they think about the case in retrospect. Edelman has set out to create the definitive document on O.J. Simpson and the significance of his trial, and Made in America is foremost a great piece of journalism, gathering all the players and materials to tell a complete story. Yet, it’s not just a matter of new thoughts on old news. “Part Three” is also speckled with genuine revelations that were kept out of the courtroom or obscured by history.
A few of the standout details:
- The shift in Ron Shipp’s thinking on O.J.’s innocence. O.J. had a cozy relationship with local police that belied the citywide tension between African-Americans and the LAPD — and that included Shipp, who was chummy enough with the family to speak at Nicole’s wake. Shipp recalls hearing three completely different excuses for how Simpson cut his finger: on broken glass in Chicago, while chipping golf balls, and while getting a cell phone out of the Bronco. After hearing Simpson admit, “I have had dreams of killing her,” that was enough for him.
- Al Cowlings’s appearance at Nicole’s wake was surprising and moving to witness, given his absolute devotion to O.J. in the days that followed. (During a high-school prank, Joe Bell recalls, Cowlings instinctively stepped in front of gun for him.) It’s a sobering reminder O.J. and Nicole had mutual friends whose loyalties were divided after their divorce — and her murder didn’t make it any easier for some.
- Ron Goldman was consistently forgotten throughout the trial, as the prosecution focused on a pattern of domestic violence and the defense went after the incompetence and racism of the LAPD. His father, Fred, was always his most fervent — and at times, almost deranged — advocate, so it was touching to see Edelman include him here, as he talks about finding Ron’s detailed plans to open a restaurant.
- What a brilliant idea to include Zoey Tur, the trans helicopter pilot who was the first to get an aerial view of the famed Bronco chase. Her transition is a notable subplot of her testimony, and her experience shooting police chases underlines O.J.’s celebrity treatment by the authorities. Just as investigators failed to pin Simpson down under questioning (without a lawyer present!), the police turned a high-speed chase into an presidential escort. Tur knows how police chases end. They make great television.
- “Part Three” also broaches the difficult topic of a jury that turned out to be extraordinarily favorable to the defense. Certain details have been well-established, from the politics of Garcetti’s decision to move the trial from Santa Monica to downtown, ensuring a more racially diverse jury, to Clark’s naïve conviction that she could persuade African-American women, despite strong evidence to the contrary. But prosecutor Bill Hodgman makes the startling and racially provocative claim that sequestration conditions — a minimum of six months away from work and everyday life — resulted in “reverse Darwinism” in the jury-selection process, skewing the pool to a lower socioeconomic strata. The implications of Hodgman’s statement are beyond ugly, and they reveal plenty about how poorly the prosecution handled race from the start.
- The FX series addressed the absurd spectacle of jurors getting a tour of O.J.’s house, where no crime had taken place and which had been completely restaged by the defense to “make him blacker.” Douglas can’t hide his Cheshire Cat grin when he recalls his boss, Johnnie Cochran, lending a Norman Rockwell lithograph to the cause. “If we had a Latin jury,” Douglas jokes, “We’d have had a picture of him in a sombrero. There would have been a mariachi band out front. We would have had a piñata at the upper staircase.”
It all speaks to a consistent strength: Given the sheer length of Made in America, Edelman makes shrewd choices about the details he emphasizes and minimizes, which is why watching the documentary after The People v. O.J. Simpson doesn’t feel redundant in the least. Where the FX series delved more into the personal dramas of the key figures involved — the tormented soul of Robert Kardashian, the backroom infighting between the Dream Team defense attorneys, the sexist response to Clark in the media, etc. — Made in America turns a wealth of personal anecdotes and details into a pointillist painting of the trial and its larger significance as a story about racial justice and American culture. From here on out, the two series will overlap significantly, even as their agendas remain separate and insights complementary.