One of the reasons the ESPN documentary series “O.J.:Made in America” has received so much praise is the timing of its release. With so many continuing examples of Black lives being assaulted by the police, the five-part, almost 8-hour documentary, telling the story of O.J. Simpson and his arrest for murder and his subsequent trial in 1995 could not be more contemporary or relevant.
The brilliance of Ezra Edelman’s documentary about O.J. is not in reporting anything particularly new, but in how so clearly and meticulously it tells its story. It does so with details illuminating the narrative commentary about how O.J. and the case spoke to – and still speaks to – the story of race in America.
Besides details, Edelman gives us context. What’s viscerally so gut-wrenchingly gruesome in the documentary is not only the footage of how terribly violated Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were, but how appallingly battered Rodney King was, as the LAPD mercilessly – and seemingly endlessly – hit him with their nightsticks.
Included in the narrative is the story of O.J.’s fame, and how O.J. himself worked so hard to embrace that fame in a white world. As Harvard professor — and host of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots”– Henry Louis Gates, Jr. once wrote about O.J., “I’m reminded of something that Roland Gift, the lead singer of the pop group Fine Young Cannibals once told a reporter: ‘I’m not black, I’m famous.’” Or, as a childhood friend quotes Simpson as saying in Edelman’s documentary, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” Gates also notes that the distinguished African American sociologist William Julius Wilson once said, mournfully, “There’s something wrong with a system where it’s better to be guilty and rich and have good lawyers than to be innocent and poor and have bad ones.”
As Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamera observes, the “ability to show all sides of this history, to balance opposing forces and push them forward is what drives the whole series.”
Adds my favorite movie critic these days, A.O. Scott of The New York Times, “Though dominated by the trial, [the documentary] extends the narrative in both directions, producing a detailed biography of Mr. Simpson that is also a social history of race, fame, sports and Los Angeles over the past half-century.”
We here at TVWeek think “O.J.: Made in America” was the best program we’ve seen on TV this year. On many cable systems it’s still available on demand. Tomorrow, Sunday, July 3, 2016, ESPN2 will air all five parts of the documentary starting at 10 a.m., ET. If you miss that, all five parts of the documentary will be repeated on Saturday, July 16 on ESPN from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m., ET. The entire film is also available on WatchESPN and iTunes.
Final words come from the essay Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote about the O.J. murder trial for New Yorker back in October, 1995, just a few weeks after the trial ended:
“[T]he debate over the rights and wrongs of the Simpson verdict has meshed all too well with the manner in which we have long talked about race and social justice. The defendant may be free, but we remain captive to a binary discourse of accusation and counter-accusation, of grievance and counter-grievance, of victims and victimizers. It is a discourse in which O. J. Simpson is a suitable remedy for Rodney King, and reductions in Medicaid are entertained as a suitable remedy for O. J. Simpson: a discourse in which everyone speaks of payback and nobody is paid. The result is that race politics becomes a court of the imagination wherein blacks seek to punish whites for their misdeeds and whites seek to punish blacks for theirs, and an infinite regress of score-settling ensues—yet another way in which we are daily becoming meta and meta. And so an empty vessel like O. J. Simpson becomes filled with meaning, and more meaning—more meaning than any of us can bear. No doubt it is a far easier thing to assign blame than to render justice. But if the imagery of the court continues to confine the conversation about race, it really will be a crime.”