Yes, O.J. Simpson: Made in America Is That Good

Photo: M. Osterreicher/Courtesy of ESPN Films

After watching all ten episodes of the work of high sordid art that was The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, it felt like everything that needed to be said about O.J. Simpson on television in 2016 had been said. It turns out that wasn’t true. 

O.J. Simpson: Made in America, the extraordinary five-part ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that premieres Saturday on ABC and continues airing next week on ESPN, has even more to tell us about the most famous athlete/acquitted murderer in the history of the U.S. criminal justice system. Practically every moment of its seven-and-a-half-hour running time is thought-provoking, astonishing, sobering, hilarious, tragic, and sometimes all of those at once.

There are many qualities that raise Made in America, also briefly released in L.A. and New York theaters last month, to the level of must-see TV. But the most significant is this: its scope. The People v. O.J. Simpson went big, delivering a series that was as much about racism, celebrity, gender bias, and the flaws in our criminal justice system as it was about a nine-month double homicide trial that took place in the mid-1990s. But as directed by documentarian Ezra Edelman, Made in America pulls back the camera for an even wider shot, capturing Simpson’s life in full along with the cultural dynamics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that aided and abetted his rise to fame, a jury’s decision on October 3, 1995 to deem him "not guilty" of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, and his subsequent, even steeper fall from grace.

Like American Crime Story, it’s also a study of major issues that exist outside of O.J. Simpson’s personal dramas but are completely intertwined with them: race, wealth and privilege, police brutality, domestic violence, fame, the evolution of the news media, religion. Basically, O.J. Simpson: Made in America is about almost everything that has mattered in this country over the last 50 years. “We talk about O.J. as though the story is O.J.,” says journalist Celia Farber, one of the many sources who speak directly to camera throughout. “The story is O.J. and us.”

The story of O.J. and us begins with the first part of the series, the one that will be broadcast Saturday at 9 p.m. on ABC. That episode takes us back to 1968, the year when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and a zippity-quick running back named Orenthal James Simpson was establishing himself as the star of the University of Southern California football team. Footage from the period illustrates how Simpson would go on to win the Heisman Trophy that year and, after accepting the award, politely thanked sports journalist Howard Cosell for praising his “impeccable character.”

Even if you were alive at the time, you may have forgotten how Simpson looked and sounded back then. If you weren’t and never understood why people were so shocked decades later in 1994, when he jumped into a Ford Bronco to avoid being taken into custody on murder charges, this — along with subsequent coverage of his evolution into NFL star, Hollywood actor, and corporate spokesperson for Chevy and Hertz — will help you understand the foundation from which that shock built. It is both stunning and sad to witness the Simpson that once was, the kid from the San Francisco projects who grew into someone who could barely be described without using the words “fine young man,” and who weaved his way into an end zone with a swiftness that, by comparison, makes Smash Williams from Friday Night Lights look like a turtle with a cinder block tied to his tail.

For significant stretches, Edelman puts the Simpson biography portion of Made in America on pause to delve into other important pieces of history from the same decades: the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, the black boycott of the 1968 Olympics, and, in later episodes, the police shooting of Eulia Love in 1979, the 1991 LAPD beating of Rodney King, and, just a few months later, the fatal shooting of black teenager Latasha Harlins by convenience store owner Soon Ja Du, who would eventually be sentenced to probation but no prison time for the crime.

As the timeline of Simpson’s life moves closer to his own murder trial, Edelman deftly uses these moments to illustrate the planting of the many seeds that would inform the divided attitudes toward the Simpson case. The effect is powerful. There’s a moment in part one that focuses on the image of African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medal stand, famously raising their fists in a symbol of black power back in 1968, the year of Simpson’s collegiate football rise. Four episodes later, Made in America pointedly returns to that image by noting that, after Simpson’s not-guilty verdict was read, a member of the jury raised his fist in a similar fashion. The connection, even if you see it coming, still sucks the breath right out of your lungs.

As vast as the narrative arc of Made in America may be, it still focuses heavily on the defining moment of Simpson’s life, at least as most Americans see it: the dual homicide charges and acquittals. The documentary revisits a lot of the same moments recently dissected in The People v. O.J. Simpson — Simpson’s nationally televised flight from the cops, the firestorm over star witness Mark Fuhrman’s previous uses of the n-word, the prosecution’s miscalculated decision to let Simpson try on those supposedly incriminating gloves. But hearing about it all from people who were actually involved in the case, either directly or tangentially (prosecutor Marcia Clark, defense team members F. Lee Bailey and Carl Douglas, jurors, activists, journalists) injects a reality into the story that American Crime Story, even when it hews close to the facts, simply can’t as a scripted series.

Plus, the people in Made in America are as colorful as any characters you’d find on FX, Netflix, or any other network and streaming service cranking out prestige TV. In the People v. O.J. Simpson, Douglas (Dale Godboldo), played an appropriately secondary role to the defense team’s star smooth talker, Johnnie Cochran (brilliantly portrayed by Courtney B. Vance). But with Cochran gone (he died in 2005), Douglas — a well-known attorney in his own right with a voice designed for either galvanizing oratory or a successful career as an audiobook narrator — emerges as the doc’s audacious hot shot. While justifying the defense team’s addition of more African-American-flavored artwork to the walls of Simpson’s home in advance of a visit from the largely African-American jury, Douglas says: “If we had had a Latin jury, we would have had a picture of him in a sombrero. We would have had a mariachi band out front.” It’s wildly inappropriate. You still can’t help but bust out laughing. As for the portion of Made in America that delves into Simpson’s extremely misguided attempt to retrieve memorabilia that once belonged to him, an amateur-hour heist that finally landed Simpson in jail on charges of armed robbery and attempted kidnapping? Well, let’s just say I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any part of a documentary that shouts so loudly to be turned into a Coen brothers movie.

But as always, the most fascinating character in all of this remains Simpson, in all his once-inspiring, pathetic, frustrating complexity. The documentary characterizes him as a poor but disciplined kid who, upon achieving success, embraced the establishment so warmly that he managed to transform himself into a hero and friend of white America and, in a sense, a figure of white privilege. While acknowledging with the utmost clarity why so many African-Americans nevertheless understandably raised up Simpson as a symbol of black oppression during his trial, it also is just as clear about the fact that Simpson is guilty of those two murders.

By displaying extremely graphic photos of a slain Brown and Goldman and detailing, with a chilling sense of foreboding, the history of domestic violence in the Brown/Simpson relationship, Made in America never lets us forget that two people’s lives were lost. To a much greater extent than The People v. O.J. Simpson, Made in America allows us to get to know Goldman and, especially, Brown; we hear from friends, see old snapshots, and watch home videos — including some from her wedding day and her private memorial service — that portray her as woman of great warmth and humor, but also someone struggling to deal with a man who wanted to control her from day one. (Her friend and then-roommate David LeBon recalls how Nicole, at age 18, came home from her first date with Simpsons wearing jeans that had been ripped. "He was a little bit forceful," LeBon recalls her saying.) Nicole Brown is not glorified as a saint. For starters, when she got together with Simpson, she knew he was still married to his first wife, Marguerite. But Made in America depicts her as a fully dimensional human being who's more than mere victim, and whose death, like Goldman's, was exploited during a media circus that seemingly will never entirely take down its big top tent.

Of course, Made in America is helping to keep that tent up, and as it subtly points out, so are we. “What I think I found most disturbing, it’s the audience and the appetite for that kind of stuff,” says Pablo Fenjves, ghostwriter of the controversial alleged Simpson confessional If I Did It. He makes this remark without acknowledging the obvious irony: He helped satisfy that appetite.

In other words, in O.J. Simpson: Made in America, the story is O.J. But it’s also us.