American crime dossier: O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

A must-see eight-hour documentary that probes into an American crime and the cultural and social causes that made this shocking case possible

O.J.: Made in America


Di­rect­ed by Ezra Edel­man.

Oren­thal James “O.J.” Simp­son was a man who had every­thing. Hand­some, cap­ti­vat­ing, one-of-a-kind ath­lete and seem­ing­ly per­fect in every­thing he did (like foot­ball, run­ning or bowl­ing), O.J. was an in­stant na­tion­al star loved by every­one. Wher­ev­er he went, no one saw him as a black man. O.J. was ac­tu­al­ly so pop­u­lar and adored by the pub­lic that he “tran­scend­ed race and col­or,” as some­one points out at a cer­tain mo­ment in this grip­ping eight-hour crime dossier that wants to dis­sect the cul­tur­al and so­cial con­di­tions that helped en­gen­der this Franken­stein mon­ster in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety — and what it ex­pos­es is so shock­ing and un­be­liev­able (at least for those who don’t know so well the de­tails about what hap­pened) that, had this real sto­ry been script­ed, the writer would be con­sid­ered a ge­nius.

Di­rect­ed by Ezra Edel­man for ESPN Films and their ex­cel­lent 30 for 30 se­ries, O.J.: Made in Amer­i­ca has the most ap­pro­pri­ate ti­tle any­one could come up with. Com­pre­hen­sive and thor­ough, the doc­u­men­tary uses a great amount of in­ter­views and archive footage to show O.J.’s life from his ear­ly years as an emerg­ing foot­ball sen­sa­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia to be­ing ac­cused of dou­ble mur­der, ac­quit­ted and im­pris­oned for an­oth­er crime 13 years lat­er. As it does so, it probes into the very ugly mold (racial op­pres­sion, ha­tred, celebri­ty ob­ses­sion, sen­sa­tion­al­ism, etc.) that made this sort of iron­ic tragedy pos­si­ble. It was by all means an Amer­i­can crime — and O.J., the off­spring of a so­cial can­cer whose ten­ta­cles seemed to spread in many dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions.

Back in the 1960s, while O.J. was be­ing se­duced by white so­ci­ety in Los An­ge­les and every­one seemed to care only about the games, po­lice bru­tal­i­ty against black peo­ple in the city led to ma­jor clash­es, reach­ing a cli­max with the Watts ri­ots in 1965. “Why were they ri­ot­ing?!” white peo­ple asked, baf­fled and com­plete­ly blind to the po­lice abuse and racism that took place right un­der their priv­i­leged noses. That event was then fol­lowed by black elite ath­letes boy­cotting the 1968 Sum­mer Olympics and Tom­mie Smith and John Car­los be­ing banned from the games for rais­ing a black-gloved fist on the podi­um in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Black Free­dom Move­ment. O.J., on the oth­er hand, re­mained al­ways apo­lit­i­cal. “I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” he once said, aware that if you are a celebri­ty in L.A., you have no col­or.

Nar­cis­sis­tic and self-as­sured, O.J. was spoiled by his own delu­sions of grandeur and clear­ly be­lieved to be above the sys­tem and the laws. O.J.: Made in Amer­i­ca un­der­stands that and draws a fas­ci­nat­ing pro­file of the man be­hind the myth. Known as “The Juice” (a syn­onym for elec­tric­i­ty and a play on “O.J.,” which is also an ab­bre­vi­a­tion of “or­ange juice”), O.J. beat the record of 2,000 yards in the 1970s and was a pi­o­neer on TV, open­ing the door for oth­er black peo­ple to ap­pear in the medi­um. He then quick­ly be­came a Chevro­let mod­el and starred in com­mer­cials for car rental com­pa­ny Hertz, be­liev­ing he could make every­one see him as a white equal (some­one even says that he “al­most has white fea­tures”). And he starred in movies too, like The Tow­er­ing In­fer­no (1974) and The Naked Gun (1988), “so what could have pos­si­bly gone wrong?” the film seems to ask.

Edel­man ex­am­ines how O.J.’s free­dom when liv­ing in the safe (and very white) Brent­wood, LA made him so spoiled that no one would say no to him — and his friends would even let him cheat when play­ing golf. He did every­thing he want­ed, so if some­one with pref­er­en­tial treat­ment can’t meet all his needs, frus­tra­tion is in­evitable. Af­ter mar­ry­ing Nicole Brown (whom he seemed to think of as his beau­ti­ful white prize), O.J. be­came jeal­ous, dan­ger­ous and mon­strous­ly abu­sive. Mean­while, an­oth­er type of bru­tal abuse was tak­ing place in the coun­try: African-Amer­i­can taxi dri­ver Rod­ney King got beat­en up by the po­lice; 15-year-old black girl Latasha Har­lins was shot in the head and killed by a fe­male South-Ko­re­an store own­er (who got re­leased); and white peo­ple were obliv­i­ous (as al­ways) to why black peo­ple would want to burn down a com­mu­ni­ty that was clear­ly not theirs.

In fact, if there is a flaw in O.J.: Made in Amer­i­ca, it is the way the film tries to con­struct a par­al­lel be­tween those two types of abuse. Not that it doesn’t make sense; on the con­trary, they are in­ti­mate­ly re­lat­ed. The prob­lem is that the sud­den jumps back and forth be­tween them in­ter­rupts the flow of in­for­ma­tion some­times and makes the doc­u­men­tary feel a bit jumpy. But this is a mi­nor thing. Once we get to the mur­ders and tri­als, the doc­u­men­tary be­comes con­sid­er­ably more fo­cused and presents con­sis­tent ar­gu­ments to sup­port an un­de­ni­able link be­tween racism in Amer­i­ca and how a mur­der­er could be set free by a jury of his peers even when every sin­gle ev­i­dence against him was over­whelm­ing. O.J.: Made in Amer­i­ca is there­fore a com­plex ex­am­i­na­tion of both celebri­ty nar­cis­sism and racial in­equal­i­ty in Amer­i­ca.

For the great irony in all of this is how the pros­e­cu­tors’ search for im­par­tial ju­rors led to a jury com­posed of most­ly African Amer­i­cans — among them eight women and a se­cret mem­ber of the Black Pan­thers who raised his fist in court. And how a rich black man (who al­ways hat­ed the fact he was black) got re­leased as pay­back for the way black peo­ple have al­ways been treat­ed in Amer­i­ca. And, of course, how a civ­il tri­al and a case of sup­pos­ed­ly stolen mem­o­ra­bil­ia gave white peo­ple the best ex­cuse to throw him in jail even if this time he didn’t do any­thing to de­serve such a harsh ver­dict — and the re­cur­rence of the num­ber 33 was, if not a sug­ges­tion of re­venge con­spir­a­cy, at least a clear in­di­ca­tor of the irony it en­tailed.

In short, this was ba­si­cal­ly a clas­sic case of white peo­ple em­ploy­ing in­jus­tice (or, should I say, “white jus­tice in Amer­i­ca”) to ob­tain pay­back against African Amer­i­cans, who were re­joic­ing in their out­spo­ken use of dis­hon­esty as an act of re­venge against white peo­ple in the first place (“now you know how it feels,” we hear some­one say) — that is, white peo­ple who have per­pet­u­at­ed racial in­equal­i­ty in the coun­try for cen­turies. It is an end­less, vi­cious cy­cle, and the fact that Edel­man un­der­stands the full im­pli­ca­tions of that makes his film even more as­tute.

Us­ing dis­turb­ing crime im­ages and an ex­pert sound de­sign to il­lus­trate the sounds of the stab­bings, for in­stance, O.J.: Made in Amer­i­ca is com­plete as a crim­i­nal dossier, pre­sent­ing so many de­tails and cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the case that it feels like an ul­ti­mate doc­u­men­tary about O.J. Simp­son (to be watched back to back with The Peo­ple v. O.J. Simp­son: Amer­i­can Crime Sto­ry (2016)). And what it presents is so bizarre (as a char­ac­ter study) and es­sen­tial (from a so­cial per­spec­tive) that it must be seen to be be­lieved.

Jan­u­ary 25, 2017


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.