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.