O.J.: Made in America
From the start, O.J.: Made in America has committed itself to understanding the “trial of the century” as a phenomenon that exposed our society’s deeper troubles with race, class, celebrity, and media. “Part Four” adds another important but neglected issue to the list: domestic violence. Though the prosecution made O.J.’s serial abuse of Nicole the “why” of its argument for conviction, they lost control of their own narrative once the defense posited O.J. as the true victim in this case. Among other things, the “not guilty” verdict signaled a rejection of spousal battery as a matter worth taking seriously, from the police officers who failed to intervene to the jury that had an easier time believing conspiracy theories than extending Nicole an ounce of sympathy.
One appalling quote from F. Lee Bailey gets to the heart of this harrowing installment: “There’s the jugular vein. All we’ve got to do is cut that and there’s nothing else of consequence.” Bailey is referencing the defense team’s strategy on Mark Fuhrman, whose past racist statements would lend credibility to their argument that systemic racism within the LAPD spurred a “rush to judgment,” and possibly even a deliberate frame-up. It’s telling that he didn’t even think to check his metaphor, and that he seems to be recalling a conversation that took place at the time. In light of gruesome crime-scene photos in which Nicole’s head is nearly severed at the throat, Bailey’s callousness is staggering. And yet, there seems to be little sensitivity to what Nicole endured, whether on the night of the murders or in O.J.’s previous outbursts of violence that began on their very first date.
Until Edelman’s documentary, I had never seen the crime-scene photos and I never recalled hearing as graphic a description of what happened as Bill Hodgman lays out in “Part Four.” He calls what happened to Ron and Nicole “overkill,” but you can plainly conclude from looking at the photographs that this was a crime of passion. If O.J. went out hunting for the theoretical “real killer,” he would have to look for someone who knew Nicole or Ron exceptionally well, because the viciousness of the attack cannot be explained by, say, the Colombian drug cartel theory that Johnnie Cochran proposed. The photos tell a story, not just of defense wounds and severed arteries and slashed throats, but of a horrifying intimacy between a perpetrator and his victims. Even though the trial unfolded before the cameras, in full view of the American public, we had to imagine the killings indirectly — through testimony, through blood evidence, through theories and counter-theories offered by the prosecution and the defense. At a certain point, it became easy to forget about the murders altogether.
Edelman cleverly postpones a full examination of the photos, teasing them first in an interview with Ron Shipp, a police officer who initially refused to testify against O.J. until he started flipping through a collection of Ron and Nicole’s pictures on Christopher Darden’s desk. (Shipp was subsequently dismantled in cross-examination by questions about his drinking and womanizing, which “Part Four” juxtaposes against a fascinating section about O.J.’s intense engagement in defense strategy.) Between the introduction of the crime photos and Hodgman’s graphic description of what they reveal, Edelman covers the following: the impact of the media circus on the trial; Bailey’s brilliant cross-examination of Fuhrman, which laid the perjury trap and the devastating Fifth Amendment dodge later in the trial; Barry Scheck’s attack on the poor handling of the blood evidence; and, finally, O.J. trying on the glove.
Basically, Edelman lets nearly the entire trial unfold before coming back to Hodgman and the crime photos. He leaves Fuhrman’s second appearance and closing arguments for later, but he gives the photos a dramatic weight precisely when the plain, gruesome reality of Ron and Nicole’s deaths is shrouded in white noise. For as much as Made in America devotes itself to putting the Simpson case in the larger context of American culture, Edelman makes the significant moral choice of pausing to remind viewers that two people were murdered. The trial may have had bigger implications for the country — past, present, and now — but it started with two murders. Edelman doesn’t let that be forgotten.
Still, “Part Four” does start to pay off all the hard work Edelman did in establishing the decades of racial injustice leading up to the trial, and the irony of O.J. being its unlikely beneficiary. The Fuhrman epithets may not have been enough to make the public doubt O.J.’s guilt, but for a jury whose members had lived with the hostility and abuse of the LAPD, the possibility of a frame-up wasn’t so outlandish. And by framing Fuhrman’s testimony — and the case itself — as yet another example of police mistreatment of African-Americans, Cochran didn’t just offer a compelling counter-theory. He empowered the jury to strike a huge blow.
Everyone remembers Cochran’s closing argument for its famous wordplay (“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”) and some might remember it as a pre-internet example of Godwin’s law, with Cochran absurdly likening Fuhrman, “the genocidal racist,” to Adolf Hitler. But watching it again, within the scope of Edelman’s documentary, it’s striking to see how well Cochran was able to make the juror’s verdict seem important. Marcia Clark asked for a murder conviction; Cochran asked for a verdict that would help put a stop to institutional racism. O.J. Simpson may have been an “imperfect vessel” for a larger justice, but in the trial of Los Angeles, a “not guilty” verdict for O.J. is an emphatic guilty verdict for a broken city. Two wrongs make a right.