You’d have thought there was nothing left to learn about O.J. Simpson, nor any additional perspective to gain on how his 1995 criminal trial and subsequent travails have dovetailed with deepening national dissent in regards to race, media, and politics. Yet, here we are, freshly removed from Ezra Edelman’s seven-plus hour documentary, O.J.: Made in America, agog at what the five-episode affair peeled back. (Not to mention recapping and fact-checking FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson for more than two months, when our eyes were opened wide at some of the anecdotal testimony and painstakingly presented evidence revealing that Simpson was a man whose dramatic downfall can’t be seen apart from his early promise.) Below are five observations we took away from Edelman’s film that, while not necessarily new information, left us with an arrestingly clearer picture of a uniquely American tragedy.
O.J. was superhumanly talented.
Those who were alive and following football during the 1960s and ’70s knew of Simpson’s grace while making Swiss cheese of defenseman on the gridiron or outpacing opponents on a short-distance track. Those of us who came of age during his Hollywood second-life had easy access to his accomplishments, but couldn’t shake his rep as bumbling badge-wearer Nordberg in Naked Gun. And for anyone born just prior to, or after, his infamy, Simpson will — perhaps rightly — forever be a probable multiple murderer and felonious miscreant first. But the Made in America footage of Simpson’s magnetism at USC and elusiveness on-field while with the Buffalo Bills, buttressed by commentary from teammates and coaches, et. al., was an astonishing demonstration of his preternatural gifts. It also, by design, set the stage for our disbelief at how he threw it all away.
O.J.’s father was gay.
There had been insinuation in the past, mostly via the kind of tabloids that became passé at about the moment we all tuned into the O.J.-trial reality show for the better part of a year. But during Made in America’s two-part premiere, childhood friends, including Joe Bell, confirm there was an uncomfortable acknowledgment among them that Simpson’s father — who left O.J. and his mother, Eunice, when he was 4 — was gay, which, as Bell puts bluntly, would have ostracized O.J. from his peers. When Edelman next details O.J.’s years of alleged abuse and aggressive behavior toward Nicole Brown, he lets us read between the lines that his desire to dominate and devour women may have stemmed from a need to prove his own hyper-hetero masculinity.
The extent and pattern of abuse against Nicole.
Anyone who followed the ’95 case with a concerned eye toward the killer’s victims knows about the domestic sparring between O.J. and Nicole. We’ve seen and/or heard the horrifying 911 calls and watched Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark walk us through the pattern of violence, jealousy, and rage. But in Made in America, Edelman underlines passages from notes and journal entries Nicole left behind that — alongside an interview with her former roommate, David LeBon — make it apparent that Simpson was rough with his future wife from the time of their very first date. LeBon had made similar assertions publicly in the past, but as with so many of the headlines that emerged after Nicole was slain, not every one of them stuck in the public imagination. But not unlike Made in America’s concise, compelling walkthrough of O.J.’s crime-scene DNA, the documentary’s accounting of his abusive past is comprehensive and virtually cross-examination-proof.
O.J. made millions signing autographs in prison.
People v. O.J. brushed up against the long-held scuttlebutt that Simpson had signed a football for an attending deputy while being held in jail during his murder defense. And upon his acquittal, it was all but assured that the notorious fallen star would recoup some losses through autograph revenue. But Made in America goes a step further, stating that Simpson all but paid his Dream Team bills by signing memorabilia — or in many cases, iron-on numbers and other tangential material that could later be affixed to customers’ jerseys, etc. — from his cell.
Just how dark and depraved O.J.’s life became in Florida and Vegas.
Not long after Simpson was acquitted, our fascination with him ebbed. We’d moved on to other wayward celebrities and generally lost our taste for either dwelling on his deviousness or celebrating him as a symbol of racial justice. When he was busted in 2007 following a lurid Las Vegas robbery gone awry, we gawked and gossiped and once again betrayed wildly divided emotions as he finally found his way to federal incarceration. But how many of us, particularly given that YouTube was still in its infancy, took the time to ponder and pass around his sad and surreal video for the rap single “Get Juiced”? Or get into the muck of how Simpson had digressed into reputed cocaine abuse and disreputable business endeavors? If there could be anything satisfying about how Edelman concludes his story, particularly for those convinced of O.J.’s wrongdoing, it would be the way in which Made in America’s final 90 minutes makes plain that Simpson was never capable of running out of his own way.