Best of 2016
The Randos Part II
O.J. Simpson: Made in America
Written and Directed by Ezra Edelman
To make the case for OJ Simpson: Made in America, one must first make the case for a long form documentary for Best Picture.
The length of the film was not a problem for most viewers. (Eight hours, twenty minutes.) It was released in theaters briefly for awards considerations, but most saw it either upon its original segmented airing on ESPN or divided into the same five parts on streaming services. I fall into the latter. I watched it on Hulu. And I watched it all in one day. Because its that goddam compelling. And that in itself is a case for long form documentary. No matter what the story or length, if it grabs you and holds you, it really makes no difference. You’ll see it thru.
Made in America finds O.J. as he is now, in prison for the ironic and ultimately silly caper in Las Vegas involving a shakedown over sports memorabilia. We are then catapulted back to sixties San Francisco, where the wave of cultural change had nothing to do with a fame hungry boy named Orenthal living in a former Navy barrack turned government housing project. As he himself puts it, all he ever wanted was for people to look at him and say, “There goes O. J….”
We are then taken thru his meteoric football career, pioneering pitchman gigs, marriage to Nichole, and brief stories and anecdotes from associates and friends until the story turns to the crime and trial.
You will learn about the crime. You will learn about the trial. Even if you lived thru the most unprecedented media saturation ever seen up unto that point, this film contains revelations. About the prosecution. The defense. The investigation.
There are two important takeaways for me from the film at large. Firstly, it’s about a hell of a lot more than the white Bronco chase. It’s about the history of race during the civil rights era. It takes us back to understand the racial history of LA by starting with the diaspora from the southern states into South Central. African Americans grew disempowered as they realized race relations were just as bad if not worse in this new supposed Promised Land as they were in the places they fled. Combine that with a tension with the Los Angeles police department, and an environment was created that produced the Watts Riots, the murder of Eula May Love, the Rodney King tape, the riots following the exoneration of the officers involved in beating Rodney King, and the militarization of the police force by Chief Daryl Gates. Under the guise of the “War on Drugs”, this police force had decimated the minority communities of Los Angeles. Edelman’s film suggests this all contributed to the atmosphere of anti police sentiment that led to the exoneration of O.J. Simpson.
The film is one of the most complicated discussions of race possible. It is about an African American man who moved with ease within the world of upper class WASPs. He lived in upscale Brentwood. He admirably considered himself colorless. Once quipping he was neither black nor white but O.J. Yet, he also betrayed fellow prominent African American athletes when he refused to stand beside Bill Russell and others in defense of Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. At one point it is revealed the defense took all the pictures of Simpson with white friends in his house down and replaced them with pictures of him with other African Americans. Even defense attorney Carl Douglas reveals O.J.,“ Never had that many black people on his wall in his life.” This distortion of his own reality would be made most apparent from revelations of comments made to arresting officers as he was driven thru the throngs of onlookers assembled outside his stately home. He calmly asked “ What are all these n*****s doing in Brentwood?” A polarizing racial figure to say the least.
However Simpson would use the culture he distanced himself from for most of his public life as a main part of his defense. Especially after hiring charismatic civil rights attorney Johnny Cochran, a man who had built his reputation taking on the LAPD. Edelman skillfully points out the immense support Simpson received from the African American community in spite of his being historically considered a “safe” black man to whites. He was someone who previously had never really stuck his neck out for the black community, yet as he became their champion, that didn’t seem to matter much. There are even those who suggest, if the victim had been Simpson’s first wife, Marguerite, an African American, no one would have cared and he would be in jail. Suggesting ultimately, it wasn’t O.J. Simpson who was exonerated. It was a chance to hit back at the heart of the criminal justice system’s historic failure to serve minority communities with equality. When O.J. Simpson won. It was just another victory to him. Like a football game. But for the community, it was a step toward vindication. A victory against racism. The Juice outran his crime. But possibly because the pain of history was greater than the pain of the victims and their families. Who, unforgettably from the start, were two groups of attractive white people.
That’s the final takeaway for me.
O.J. probably did it. The film makes a more than compelling case. But what was the trial REALLY about?
When Edelman asks one of the jurors if her decision on the verdict was revenge for the exoneration of the officers responsible for the Rodney King assault, she simply throws up her hands as if to say, “Pretty much.”
So a murderer walked free. Because of history. Because of resentment. Not that the resentment wasn’t justified. But the murders certainly were not.
So with that we learn sometimes the revolution can seize the wrong moments, for the wrong reasons, and make a champion of the wrong man. And he gets away with murder because of it.