O.J.: Made in America
The final installment of O.J.: Made in America begins with the verdict and ends with an astonishing parade of ironies that are alternately sad, parodic, and, in the final analysis, profoundly tragic. Over seven-and-a-half hours, director Ezra Edelman has followed O.J. from the San Francisco projects to the heights of athletic achievement and celebrity, and from a double homicide and the grim spectacle of the trial that followed to the mystifying follies that landed him in a Nevada correctional facility. O.J.’s ambition and skill delivered him from a poor, black neighborhood to a rich, white one, until the trial turned him into a pariah among white people and a symbol of hope for many African-Americans in a justice system historically rigged against them. All the while, his identity — not just in terms of race, but also class and celebrity status — waxed and waned, utterly dependent on fate, talent, and a series of ruinous decisions.
“Part Five” starts with the “not guilty” heard ‘round the world, which tore open the racial fault lines so thoroughly exposed by the trial. What’s remarkable about the stark division of opinion from white and black people is that the trial had virtually no impact whatsoever, other than deepening convictions on both sides. The jury was pilloried for the verdict, but to some extent, they were doing what all Americans were doing: clinging to information that confirmed their biases and disregarding the rest. Asked about how the jury only needed three-and-a-half hours to arrive at a decision, juror Yolanda Crawford argued that she spent every lonely night of sequestration thinking about the events of the day. Her fellow juror, Carrie Bess, cops to a dereliction of duty: “That was payback for Rodney King,” she says, estimating that 90 percent of the jury acted with that in mind.
In the decades since that verdict, the gap in public opinion between blacks and whites over O.J.’s guilt has narrowed, but Made in America vividly evokes a moment when the country had to instantly come to terms with stark divisions in racial perspective. Jeffrey Toobin admits to assuming the jury would agree that O.J. was obviously guilty; he was struck on the day by how much the trial tapped into national pain on race. (“It was all so much bigger than we were.”) An AME minister remembers the jubilation of having the system finally work for a black defendant, likening it to Jackie Robinson opening the door for black baseball players. The truth of the murders was not served by the trial, but the verdict and its aftermath offered plenty of sobering truths about the state of race relations and how far the country had — and still has — to go.
The truly revelatory material in “Part Five” is found in O.J.’s decline and fall after the trial, when his rich, white neighbors in Brentwood rejected him and a less-diverse Santa Monica jury found him guilty in the civil case to the tune of $33 million. From there, he was whisked away on an odyssey that saw him awkwardly return to the black community that embraced him, hiding money and memorabilia from the Goldman family, and clinging pathetically to the bottom-most rung of celebrity. He sought isolated pockets of well-wishers, but wound up with a new and unsavory group of friends in Florida, and he darted from one ill-advised project to the next in an effort to cash in on his name and perhaps convince people to love him again.
There’s so much about this surreal postscript that fascinates and befuddles: the miserable Candid Camera–style prank show Juiced, the conception of the not-quite-confessional book If I Did It, the womanizing, the drug abuse, the hawking of O.J. memorabilia as both a steady source of back-channel income and the eventual cause of his criminal downfall. That incredible scene of O.J.’s last day at Rockingham, where he’s doing take after take of lowering the American flag (and faking emotion) for a quick tabloid buck, seems to demand a German word that combines “tragic” and “shameless.” That word would define the post-trial life that Edelman lays out so expertly here, a ceaseless horror show in which a morally and spiritually vacant man tried to reclaim some piece of the life he’d squandered.
Suddenly, Edelman introduces an entirely new cast of characters who hadn’t appeared in the previous four parts of the documentary. We get an Esquire profiler and author, the co-author of If I Did It, and a cavalcade of shady memorabilia collectors who attached themselves to O.J. in Florida and Las Vegas. There’s much more of his former agent, Mike Gilbert, who wielded the camera for the fake-tabloid scoop about his last day at Rockingham and helped him move autographed merchandise — all while pilfering big items for himself, including the Heisman Trophy. Gilbert became absolutely convinced of O.J.’s guilt, but kept serving as his agent and confidant, which leads to striking admission: O.J. may not have a conscience and may not pay for killing Ron and Nicole, but he “sure as hell will pay for helping him to get away with it.”
After the trial ended and the media jumped onto other shiny objects, the O.J. saga became grist for memoirs and the subject of occasional check-ins and flare-ups, but without the country paying attention, he was left totally exposed. The civil trial ruling didn’t get news precedence over Bill Clinton’s State of the Union address, and his 33-year conviction for kidnapping and armed robbery was delivered so nonchalantly that the judge was actually sipping from a Big Gulp-sized cup. Carl Douglas, perhaps the liveliest talking head in Edelman’s documentary, offers a terrific metaphor about white America winning “the fifth quarter,” referring to the brawl that occurred after his high-school football team would lose. Once O.J. was out of the spotlight, he was kneecapped in the shadows.
What the hell happened in Vegas, anyway? Made in America recounts the botched robbery as scrupulously as it can, but the whole thing plays like a Coen Brothers comedy where dumb amateurs try to commit a crime and are undone by their haplessness. As Douglas says, the charges against O.J. merit him “two years soaking wet,” but the need to punish him for slipping justice over Ron and Nicole’s murders leads to another form of injustice. Even if you’re like Fred Goldman and feel comfortable with putting O.J. in prison no matter the charge, Made in America leaves you with the impression that the original murder trial changed nothing at all. It wasn’t a lasting civil rights victory for African-Americans. It didn’t strike a blow against institutional racism. And 13 years later, the decision in Las Vegas was entirely about “white justice” asserting its supremacy when no one was looking and no one cared. When Goldman hisses about O.J. being where he belongs, “with others of his kind,” the racial undertones are unsettling.
Made in America ends with O.J.’s sad entreaties to history: “Please remember me as the Juice. Please remember me as a good guy. Please.” That’s not how he’ll be remembered, but Edelman makes the persuasive case for O.J.’s life as a crucial inflection point for America at the end of the 20th century. The best possible takeaway from the wreckage is that it forced us, then and now, to look in the mirror and understand ourselves a little better. This film, all 450 minutes of it, does that service masterfully.