‘Made in Amer­ica’ ex­am­ines in de­tail the rise and fall of O.J. Simp­son

The Jerusalem Post - - ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT - • By KEN­NETH TU­RAN

He was, per­haps, the most fa­mous Amer­i­can ever charged with mur­der. His story saw the in­cen­di­ary in­ter­twin­ing of nu­mer­ous con­tem­po­rary ob­ses­sions: sports, race, celebrity, crime, even sex. His trial lasted more than eight months and in­volved more than 100 wit­nesses, pro­duc­ing 45,000-plus pages of tes­ti­mony, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar costs and books and movies too nu­mer­ous to men­tion. But where O.J. Simp­son is con­cerned, the best may well have been left for last.

O.J.: Made in Amer­ica is an ex­cep­tional, seven-hour doc­u­men­tary, so per­cep­tive, em­pa­thetic and com­pelling you want it never to end.

That’s be­cause di­rec­tor Ezra Edel­man has am­bi­tiously both bur­rowed deeply into the story’s fas­ci­nat­ing specifics and uti­lized those in the service of a brac­ingly wide per­spec­tive.

If FX’s re­cent drama­ti­za­tion The Peo­ple v. O.J. Simp­son: Amer­i­can Crime Story stuck closely to the case’s time­line, the doc­u­men­tary deals with O.J. af­ter the trial and, more point­edly, goes back decades to fit his saga into the con­text of race and jus­tice in Los An­ge­les and, by im­pli­ca­tion, the rest of the coun­try as well.

Like other way-long doc­u­men­taries be­fore it (Claude Lanz­mann’s Shoah, clock­ing in at more than 10 hours, and Mar­cel Ophuls’ four-hour The Sor­row and the Pity come to mind), Made in Amer­ica could not have ac­com­plished all that with­out the cu­mu­la­tive power that re­sults when that time is ex­pertly used.

It’s not just that Edel­man has talked to a lot of peo­ple, 65 of whom ap­pear on screen, it’s that he mixes likely sus­pects and key court­room play­ers such as pros­e­cu­tor Mar­cia Clark, de­fense lawyers F. Lee Bailey and Barry Scheck, Los An­ge­les police de­tec­tive Mark Fuhrman and two mem­bers of the jury with un­ex­pected com­men­ta­tors such as sports so­ci­ol­o­gist Harry Ed­wards, com­mu­nity ac­tivist Danny Bakewell, for­mer New York Times sports columnist Robert Lip­syte and nov­el­ist Wal­ter Mosely. (Pros­e­cu­tor Christo­pher Dar­den, Judge Lance Ito and now-de­ceased lead de­fender Johnny Cochran are not in the in­ter­viewed group.)

More to the point, Edel­man is a su­perb in­ter­viewer, dis­play­ing an ear for the good quote and an abil­ity to get his sub­jects to re­lax and more or less level with him.

Made in Amer­ica is filled with elec­tric mo­ments, like Scheck waf­fling about whether he ac­tu­ally be­lieved his own ar­gu­ments, O.J.’s for­mer man­ager Mike Gil­bert claim­ing he told O.J. be­fore the court­room glove scene that not tak­ing his arthri­tis medicine would make his hands swell, and de­fense co­or­di­na­tor Carl Dou­glas ex­ult­ing in chang­ing the racial makeup of the pho­to­graphs at O.J.’s Brent­wood house to im­press the largely black jury.

Edel­man has a broader aim as well for his in­ter­views, and that is con­vey­ing the dev­as­tat­ing na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the sys­tem, as rep­re­sented by the Los An­ge­les Police De­part­ment and the courts, and the black peo­ple who lived in South Los An­ge­les.

One af­ter an­other, Made in Amer­ica goes through the litany of un­just, even tragic sit­u­a­tions. The killing of Eula Love over an un­paid gas bill, the wreck­ing of apart­ments at 39th and Dalton, the beat­ing of Rod­ney King, the lack of prison time for the killer of Latasha Har­lins and more.

It all com­bined, LA County Su­per­vi­sor Mark Ri­d­ley-Thomas says, to show a dis­re­spect for black life, to cre­ate the feel­ing, echoed na­tion­wide to­day in the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, that in Los An­ge­les skin color de­ter­mines the de­gree of jus­tice you get. By the time the trial be­gan with a largely black jury, there was the sense that, as the Rev. Ce­cil Mur­ray, for­mer pas­tor of the First AME church says, “there was some­thing big­ger than him at stake.”

Which, fi­nally, couldn’t be more ironic, be­cause an­other ma­jor strand of Made in Amer­ica de­tails how lit­tle race mat­tered to O.J. “He told me, ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.,’” re­counts so­ci­ol­o­gist Ed­wards, who adds that “his quest was to erase race as the defin­ing fac­tor in his life.”

O.J.’s gifts as a run­ning back were ini­tially the key to this quest. Grow­ing up poor (with, ap­par­ently, an ab­sent gay fa­ther) in the Potrero Hill sec­tion of San Fran­cisco, he was am­bi­tious and ea­ger for fame from an early age, a drive that when com­bined with his ex­tra­or­di­nary foot­ball skills took him to USC and a Heis­man Tro­phy.

“He was se­duced by white so­ci­ety,” says child­hood friend Joe Bell. “He lost his iden­tity; he didn’t know who he was.”

Made in Amer­ica spends con­sid­er­able time on O.J.’s foot­ball ca­reer, com­plete with daz­zling clips, fol­low­ing him from that col­lege suc­cess to the NFL’s Buf­falo Bills, where his feat of gain­ing more than 2,000 yards in a 14-game sea­son has never been du­pli­cated.

These ac­com­plish­ments are im­por­tant be­cause they led in part to O.J.’s feel­ing of ex­cep­tion­al­ism, his sense that the way the world worked was ir­rel­e­vant to him, some­thing that emerged later in un­ex­pected ways, such as a pen­chant for cheat­ing at golf that many of his friends can’t help but grin and com­ment on.

In ad­di­tion to be­ing gifted, O.J. had enor­mous charm (“he made grown men melt,” is how one per­son puts it) and was not shy about putting it to use. He en­joyed be­ing a celebrity, hap­pily sign­ing au­to­graphs for hours, and with his fa­mous Hertz Rent a Car ads be­came per­haps the first black TV spokesper­son to be ef­fec­tive with white con­sumers.

His re­la­tion­ship with Ni­cole Brown started with equal prom­ise, though she was but 18 when they met and he was a mar­ried man with chil­dren. It was by all ac­counts a mu­tual at­trac­tion, with one of Ni­cole’s sis­ters tes­ti­fy­ing “they had a real love af­fair, that’s what makes things so sad.”

If one of the over­ar­ch­ing themes of Made in Amer­ica is that just as O.J.’s treat­ment by the mur­der panel could have been ex­pected (“If this jury does con­vict me, maybe I did do it,” he is said to have joked to his de­fense team), so vi­o­lence against Ni­cole could have been fore­seen given the pat­tern of her 911 calls re­port­ing abu­sive be­hav­ior (“He’s go­ing to kill me,” she says on one call), which rarely re­sulted in le­gal ac­tion.

Es­pe­cially good at de­tail­ing the var­i­ous fi­as­cos of the trial, from Fuhrman’s racist tapes to the glove that wouldn’t fit, which negated con­sid­er­able phys­i­cal ev­i­dence, Made in Amer­ica takes an al­most sur­real turn when it deals with O.J.’s sor­did post-trial life in Mi­ami and Las Ve­gas, cul­mi­nat­ing in a sports mem­o­ra­bilia rob­bery that led to his cur­rent in­car­cer­a­tion in a Ne­vada prison.

“Please re­mem­ber me as the Juice, please re­mem­ber me as a good guy,” are the last words we hear from O.J., recorded in 1994 just be­fore his fa­mous white Bronco free­way drive.

For rea­sons Made in Amer­ica bril­liantly de­lin­eates, that is just not go­ing to be pos­si­ble any­more.

(Sam Mir­covich/Reuters)

O.J. SIMP­SON wear­ing the in­fa­mous gloves dur­ing the Simp­son dou­ble-mur­der trial in 1995 in Los An­ge­les.

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