Some Thoughts on O.J.: Made In America

oj-made-in-america-part-4

O.J. Simpson is having something of a resurgence in 2016, which is kind of odd for a guy that is currently incarcerated. Earlier this year FX aired The People vs. O.J. Simpson, a dramatization of the infamous 1995 trial where Simpson was accused of the murders of his estranged wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. Considering Ryan Murphy was involved with the series, I was convinced that it would go off the rails pretty quickly, but The People vs. O.J. Simpson wound up being pretty compelling television. The performances were great – special recognition for Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark), Sterling K. Brown (Christopher Darden) and Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran) – and they somehow managed to make me very invested in a story that I already knew a lot about. Despite my knowledge of the ultimate outcome, there was still tension and fascination as the story unfolded. In some ways, it was like a horror movie – if you yelled loudly enough at the screen for the prosecutors to not put Mark Furhman on the stand or not have O.J. try on the gloves, maybe they’d listen and things would turn out differently. Even David Schwimmer playing a Kardashian and whatever was happening with John Travolta’s eyebrows kind of worked. If you didn’t watch The People vs. O.J. Simpson, I’d recommend it.

But as good as the FX series was, the ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America is even better. It serves as a nice compliment, not competitor to, The People vs. O.J. Simpson; it goes much deeper and covers more ground. Even having lived through the O.J. trial and watching the limited series, I’m still learning new things about the case. The documentary is something of an investment – the sum of its five episodes clocks in at over 10 hours – but it is totally worth it. In fact, I look forward to each new installment, rather than viewing the series as homework of a chore. There was a lot of very positive buzz about the docuseries before it debuted and I have to say, cynical as I am, it totally lived up to the hype.

Because of the length of O.J.: Made in America, they are able to do a much deeper dive and cover many more topics than the FX show. The People vs. O.J. Simpson was focused on the trial and trial alone, but O.J.: Made in America can take the time to delve into O.J.’s childhood and his college and professional football career. Even though Simpson played for my team (the Buffalo Bills), my primary familiarity with him was exclusively from his acting work and then the double murder investigation. I knew that he was a football player, but I didn’t know how good he was really was; O.J.: Made in America filled in those blanks for me and also put his success in context. Perhaps even more than The People vs. O.J. Simpson, the ESPN documentary illustrates the complex issues or race, police brutality, celebrity and domestic abuse that were all critical components of the Simpson trial. For many of the jurors, the murder case was less about the guilt of O.J. Simpson and more a referendum on the racist practices of the LAPD. The documentary is able to go down many side streets in its narrative that aren’t about the Simpson case per se, but are critical factors to understanding the atmosphere surrounding the case. While I knew quite a bit about Rodney King and the riots that followed, I was unaware of the killings of Eula Love or Latasha Harlins and the outrage that sparked; if the King verdict was the tipping point, both of these incidents were important precursors to the anger that would manifest itself. The documentary spends the time to explain why people were ready to rally around O.J. – it wasn’t just his celebrity stature, but it was also about a deep suspicion of the LAPD and what they were capable of.

Perhaps most interesting to me has been the examination of O.J.’s belief that he transcended race and his relationship with the African American community prior to his arrest. There are a lot of interesting psychological factors at play here and gave some much needed context for O.J.’s famous utterance “I’m not black; I’m O.J.” Interviews with childhood friends also give some insight into his family as well as his friendship with AC Cowlings, who was utterly devoted to OJ despite OJ stealing away (and then marrying) AC’s girlfriend. These things aren’t necessarily critical to a discussion of the “trial of the century” but they help focus all the weirdness of the trail and look at the big picture of the societal and personal issues at play. The deep dive of the documentary also keeps it interesting; even if you think you know a lot about O.J. Simpson and the trial, there will still be surprising nuggets of information that are discovered. For me, so far the most interesting segments have been those that focus on the lead up to the murders and subsequent trial, perhaps because that is what I am most familiar with. The series isn’t always an easy watch – the crime scene photos from the murders are brutal and it can be hard to listen to Nicole’s frequent 911 calls. I’ve never really doubted that O.J. was responsible for these crimes, but the documentary sheds some light on why others would have been less likely to come to that conclusion.

I’ve been a fan of the 30 for 30 documentaries that ESPN has put out for a long time, but O.J.: Made in America is their crown jewel. It’s easily the best thing that they’ve done, which is impressive given people’s presumed familiarity with the case as well as its release after The People vs. O.J. Simpson. O.J.: Made in America could have felt like a retread of a story that we already know, but instead it wisely gets into the weeds and almost looks at the case through a sociological lens. It is amazing how many of the issues that were central to the Simpson trial are issues that are still major concerns today; on that level, the documentary taps into the current political climate. Ten hours is a lot to invest in any one product, but in this case I think that the ends justify the means. O.J.: Made in America is stellar.

Episodes are currently airing on ESPN; all five parts of the documentary are currently available for streaming.

Friday Fun – Angels in the Outfield 30 for 30

Fun-Friday-copy

As I’ve written before, I am a big fan of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series; I watched all of the original  batch of 30 documentaries and have only missed a handful of the subsequent installments. For me, it marries two of my favorite things: sports and documentary film making.

College Humor decided to have a little fun and created a 30 for 30 episode for the movie Angels in the Outfield. I’m sure that I saw Angles in the Outfield as some point, given my love of baseball movies, but I apparently have zero recollection of it as I didn’t remember that it starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt or featured a pre-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey. In fact, until I watched this parody, I’m pretty sure that I thought Angels in the Outfield and Rookie of the Year were the same movie. So this video was not only funny, but educational. That’s a good combination.

 

Some thoughts on The Price of Gold (An ESPN 30 for 30 film)

1101940124_400

Gillooly.

If you are 30 years old or older, there’s a pretty good chance that you had an instant flicker of recognition with the mention of that name. Even twenty years after the incident at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, people who have absolutely no interest in the sport can vividly recount the details of the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and the subsequent fallout. It’s hard to believe now that figure skating once captured America’s collective attention and riveted people to the 1994 Winter Olympics (me included), but the surreal circumstances surrounding the event were just too much for even the most disinterested person to ignore. If you had written what had happened as a movie, it would have been disregarded as too unbelievable. But as they say, truth is stranger than fiction and the saga of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan is proof of that.

I always look forward to new installments in ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30, but I was especially excited for The Price of Gold because I had been fascinated with story when it actually happened. I was a senior in high school when this was occurring and my distaste for the Olympics had not yet completely solidified. I hadn’t necessarily been paying much attention to figure skating up to this point – it wasn’t something that I would seek out, but would watch if it was on – but that all changed once Kerrigan was hit with a police baton and suspicion landed squarely in the vicinity of her rival Harding and Harding’s associates. This was all far too juicy to ignore.

As a lifelong sports fan, I’ve seen plenty of rivalries and fierce competition. Hell, as a Yankee fan I am part of one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time. I’ve seen some rowdy behavior and some questionable comments made, but this was the first time that I ever saw a premeditated attack on an athlete in order to knock them out of competition. There may be dirty plays on the field, but to seek to injure another athlete off the field was unheard of – especially in a sport that is regarded as genteel and refined as figure skating. You expect some trash talk and aggression from people playing a contact sport; a diabolical plot to take out your rival just doesn’t fit with the perception of figure skating. That’s one of the reasons I think people were so fascinated by the whole saga; it was so unexpected.

The contrast between the two women involved also made the story all the more compelling; if you had gone to central casting you couldn’t have done a better job. Though Harding and Kerrigan both came from blue collar families, their experiences were vastly different. Kerrigan came from a functional family unit that was supportive, while Harding had a hard knocks childhood that was full of abuse, both physical and emotional. Kerrigan skated for love of the sport, while Harding skated partially as an escape. Figure skating was her ticket out of the sad life she was living. Kerrigan perfectly fit the image of a figure skater, with her beauty, grace and costumes. Harding was the outsider; she was a scrappy kid with a trashy image that never quite fit in with the figure skating establishment. Kerrigan knew how to play the game; Harding was unable or willing to conform to preconceived ideas of what a figure skater should be. Based on looks alone, you would assume that Kerrigan came from the country club and Harding arose from the trailer park. The whole thing was a study in contrasts, which only served to make everything that unfolded so captivating. The attack on Kerrigan forever linked two women who were complete opposites, aside from their passion for figure skating. Add in a bunch of unseemly co-conspirators and a harebrained scheme that was easily detected and all the ingredients were there to temporarily focus the collective attention of the nation on figure skating.

The 30 for 30 documentary didn’t necessarily present much new information; having followed this story closely when it happened, I knew much of what was presented. There were a few insiders who were close to the story that could provide some additional detail, but I can’t say that I learned a lot from the doc. What made The Price of Gold so interesting was that Harding agreed to participate in it; she gave her perspective on what happened while steadfastly denying her involvement in masterminding the attack. Harding is probably her own worst enemy, as she isn’t necessarily very convincing in protesting her innocence, but she remained defiant throughout the interviews and tried her best to portray herself as the ultimate victim of what transpired. “Skating was put on the map, supposedly from me… Everybody made a life and a livelihood, um, except me.” What was most telling was that she seemed to show no remorse for what happened; it is clear that she still harbors some ill will toward Kerrigan. She thought that it was rude that Kerrigan didn’t accept her apology for her role in covering up the incident after it happened and even called Kerrigan out as a crybaby for Kerrigan’s disappointment in not winning the Gold medal. When Harding said that she didn’t give a damn about what people thought of her, you kind of have to accept that at face value. She does absolutely nothing to make herself more likable. This is not a woman that is super interested in making friends. But she seems adamant in trying to persuade people that her involvement was minimal. On that count, she fails spectacularly.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • Of course this all went down in Detroit. There is no other American city that would have served as a better backdrop for all this foolishness.
  • Though I had remembered almost all of the details associated with this soap opera, I had completely blocked out Oksana Baiul. I knew that Kerrigan had won the Silver medal, but the person that actually won the Gold had faded from my memory. Not salacious enough, I guess.
  • Watching the footage from the 90s, I couldn’t help but be struck by the omnipresence of scrunchies. I’d forgotten that they were everywhere back in the day. A fashion trend I am not sad has passed.
  • I have often looked to Jeff Gillooly as a solution to the ongoing Alex Rodriguez problem for the Yankees. If I whacked  A-Rod with a bat and he was unable to play baseball ever again, I guarantee you that no jury of my peers would convict me. I’d probably be a national hero.
  • Kerrigan declined to participate in the 30 for 30 documentary, but apparently is cooperating with an NBC doc that will air during the Sochi Olympics (makes sense, as Kerrigan has been hired by NBC as an analyst).

Though my interest in figure skating faded not long after all of this played out, it is still one of the strangest sports stories that I’ve ever watched unfold. The fact that The Price of Gold was so interesting to watch speaks well of the filmmaker, but also to the inherent allure of the story. It’s not often that you get to watch a real life soap opera play out with such a weird cast of characters. I was honestly surprised that I had so much knowledge about this still stored up in my brain. To me, it feels like this all just happened yesterday, even though we are approaching the two decade anniversary of the events. I may not have learned much from The Price of Gold, but it was still fun to revisit everything that happened and to see Harding’s recount. The Kerrigan/Harding situation was like the world’s best reality show. Even 20 years later, you just can’t look away.

The Price of Gold will re-air Saturday January 18th at 4 pm (ET)on ABC.