O.J.: Made in America’s Jim Newton on the Documentary’s Biggest Surprises

O.J. Simpson with his first wife, Marguerite Whitley. Photo: ESPN

Longtime Los Angeles Times reporter and current authormagazine editor, and UCLA communication-studies professor Jim Newton thought he had put the O.J. Simpson saga behind him. But then came last year’s 20th anniversary of Simpson’s acquittal in the trial determining whether he murdered ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and waiter Ronald Goldman. And on its heels, the production of FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, a dramatized account of the period between the heinous crime and O.J.’s exoneration. Newton gamely waded through all ten episodes of the Ryan Murphy–Brad Falchuck series alongside us, serving as a barometer for Crime Story’s veracity in weekly fact-checks. Overlapping that, O.J.: Made in America producer–director Ezra Edelman was preparing Newton’s inclusion as an on-camera interviewee in his epic documentary. And with Made in America having since aired, we circled back with Newton for one last tour through this notorious, grisly chapter in American criminal justice for his take on Edelman’s ambitious film, how it sized up to American Crime Story, and the surreal experience of viewing it as participant and objective audience.

On some level, it feels as though this documentary is charting the development of a psychopath.
There’s something so shockingly self-centered about him, and I experienced some of that over the course of the trial and in my own meeting with him, but I think [Made in America] documents that in a methodical way I haven’t seen before. I’ll tell you something: I didn’t know O.J.’s father was gay. I’m not treated to a lot of new revelations about O.J. Simpson anymore, but there was a lot of stuff in here. I’m amazed about some of the things people talked about. I would have thought there was attorney–client stuff that prohibited some of this. So there’s a lot more information than I was expecting them to be able to get, frankly.

There are more resonant revelations in the movie, like how O.J. may have internalized his father’s sexuality, but also smaller jolts à la Carl Douglas ostensibly boasting about having gotten his 15 minutes of fame.
One of the ones I felt was stunning was at the very end, when you see Simpson and the defense team at his house, and Shapiro comes on the air. Watching them watching him is wild. There’s genuinely new nuggets sprinkled throughout this and presented in a way I thought was consistently surprising.

What were some of the other surprises?
The decline into debauchery in Florida. I’m not very surprised to hear it, but I didn’t know it — the cocaine, the girlfriend. I had never seen the evidence of it. Whatever one thinks of the murder, I found myself feeling sorry for the guy as he slid further and further off his greatness. Another revelation [was] the idea that he was signing all this memorabilia while in custody. I know there was a reference to it in the fictional version, but [Made in America] talked about millions of dollars he made while he was in custody. I had no idea. The fact that they were doing it as an industry to help play his legal bills, that was a slap in the face to me.

Was there anything that further elucidated aspects of the case that you were already familiar with?
There’s that scene [in American Crime Story] where Marcia Clark is in a bar with Chris Darden up in Oakland, where she walks people through the blood evidence. Here, it was fascinating to me to go back through that stuff. There is a version of this case that’s very simple: There’s two bodies on the ground; there’s size-16 shoeprints leading away that very few people owned that he happened to; to the left of those shoeprints are blood drops that have his DNA; he has a cut on his left hand; there’s Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson’s blood in his car; there’s blood at this house — the literal trail of blood. You go back through it, and it’s a pretty compelling case. Unfortunately, it’s not the case they elected to present.

What was the process of being interviewed actually like for you?
They came over to UCLA, and we borrowed the dean’s office in the building where I work, and I remember feeling a little awkward about that. I remember thinking, “This’ll be 45 minutes or an hour,” and it went maybe three to four hours. It was long enough that when I arrived for the premiere, I thought either they could use nothing of what I said, or they could just cherry-pick out all the stupid things I said, or this could turn out all right. They had a lot of questions. It was quite exhausting.

The length of the film seemed to allow insights from people like yourself to really breathe and not be overly clipped or manipulated.
What comes through for me as both a viewer and interviewee is it unfolds like an actual learning experience, like they’re actually listening rather than asking the four questions they need to get to round out the segment. It felt exploratory. I certainly felt well-treated. I had a couple of [on-camera] comments that I was nervous about. If they had cut differently, I worried that I could look ham-handed, but I felt like they were really thoughtful, and I’m grateful. There’s a real intellectual honesty about the [film]. It felt very nuanced and personal to [O.J.] and also socially relevant, and that comes through in these long interviews where people get to explain themselves instead of blurting out something incriminatory and then moving on.

If there is one nit to pick, it might be trial-fatigue when it comes to this case. Do you think that’s valid, or is Made in America’s perspective on the ’95 proceedings another essential component?
For me, it was fascinating, and in some ways even more so having been through the FX one, because it reminded me of what it really was. It’s almost like a diary for me to watch it, so in that sense, I’m not sure I’m a good critic of that. I think it works at this length, and I think it’s powerful, and by grinding you through some of that, they replicate the grind that it was. [Prosecution witness] Dennis Fung testified for eight fucking days. Part of the story of this trial is that it was exhaustive, exhausting, tedious, difficult … and so if the show indulged a bit of that, I give them credit for bringing that idea back, too.

You’ve always abstained from revealing your feelings on Simpson’s guilt or innocence in Nicole and Ron’s murders. Did this film change your feeling at all?
As to the ultimate conclusion of whether I think he did it or not, I would say no. But something I saw in this presentation that I had never seen before were the photos of the crime scene. I guess what I would say is it brought home, 20-odd years later, the intensity of this event, the rage that had to fuel it. That whoever did this crime wasn’t doing it for money or some shallow motive. Whoever did this crime was filled with rage for either or both of those victims. And the universe of people who were that furious at either or both of these victims is probably pretty small. So in that sense, I think it reminds you of why he was charged. This is not jumping at the first conclusion. There were serious reasons to regard him as the culprit here. And whether he actually did it, that’s for a jury and history to decide. But it’s impossible to see this and not be moved by what happened.

Jim Newton on O.J.: MIA’s Biggest Surprises