“All I know is someone else did 10 hours about O.J.” These are the words of director Ezra Edelman, who earlier this year couldn’t help but avoid the reactions to that other O.J. Simpson project, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. All the while he knew he had just completed his magnum opus, O.J.: Made in America, a sprawling seven and a half hour documentary which was supposed to be our entryway into this story that we hadn’t thought a lot about over the last 20 or so years. But, no, it didn’t work out that way. (The film is in select theaters from May 20 through May 26 and will premiere on ABC June 11.)
“I have not watched any of the TV show. It was a little too painful for me,” says Edelman. Now, I suspect if Edelman is reading this, he doesn’t love the fact I chose to lead off this piece, on what is essentially Edelman’s life’s work, talking about the FX series. And I’d understand that. I’d be frowning right now, too. But it’s also the elephant in the room, so let’s get it out of the way. (And you know what, the FX series was great, but Edelman’s documentary is a masterpiece.)
“That’s not to denigrate the TV show. I heard it’s great; I’ve heard people are into it.” Edelman is correct: People were into it. It dominated internet headlines for two months. (Which, yes, if I had made a seven-and-a-half-hour documentary about the same subject, I would have trepidations as well.) Adding to this, Edelman scored one of the first interviews with Marcia Clark about this subject in almost 20 years, but then Clark became extremely active in the press during the run of the FX show.
What all of this surmounts to is Edelman seems a bit annoyed — not at anyone in particular, but at the circumstances. Who wouldn’t be? But there’s a big difference: The People v. O.J. Simpson was about a trial that swept the cultural landscape during the mid 1990s. O.J.: Made in America isn’t just about the trial. It isn’t just about the life of O.J. Simpson. It’s a story about us.
I have a friend who I will call “Ross.” (Because that’s his name.) Ross is 29 years old and, for his entire life, has only knows O.J. Simpson as someone who stood trial for murder. To Ross, he was never the god-like running back who played for USC, then the Buffalo Bills. He was never Nordberg from The Naked Gun movies. O.J. Simpson was the guy who was on trial for killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. There’s a whole subset of the population who doesn’t really quite realize just how famous and beloved. O.J. Simpson used to be.
“If you’re under 30, all you know about O.J. is that he was a guy who used to play football who was accused of murder,” says Edelman, “I think collectively, because everyone lost their minds after the murders — there’s such a concentration and obsession with that story during those two years — that we’ve both erased who O.J. was historically and no one has any time to even think about what happened to him afterwards.”
O.J.: Made in America starts in the late 1960s, while O.J. is still at the University of Southern California, playing football on what’s almost an all-white campus, but just blocks away from the racial turmoil in Watts. The documentary does a pretty good job in showcasing that this is something that Simpson, even in the 1960s, doesn’t particularly care about. When Simpson’s asked about Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists on the Olympic podium, he dismisses the subject. Over the course of this documentary, O.J. Simpson (who is still in a prison in Nevada and did not participate) makes it clear he is not black or white, he’s “O.J.”
By the time we get to the first signs of domestic violence, it’s legitimately shocking. O.J.: Made in America does such a great job of establishing Simpson’s celebrity, it almost makes us forget about everything we know about him from the trial. It actually recreates the feeling of what this was all like in 1994 when this news broke: What, no… not O.J. Simpson. Impossible.“There’s a level to which we might feel complicit in it,” says Edelman. “Because we all participated in enjoying this guy and creating this guy and it makes us feel strange inside. So that’s why it’s important.”
Edelman continues, “It’s not the first time someone in Hollywood has been accused of murder, but to understand the fascination with this, you have to understand how personal O.J. was to us. If you were male, of a certain age, and a sport fan, he was the athletic paragon, who was not only the best, but also the most beautiful. Then if he’s Nordberg, and you watch The Naked Gun in this movie that makes you laugh — and he makes you feel good. Then when you hear someone is accused of murder, there’s a cognitive dissonance that sets in going, ‘Nordberg could not have murdered anybody.’ That’s where it becomes a question of us.”
If Edelman’s reading this, here’s where I make him upset again by mentioning the FX show, but I really need to do so to make a larger point. The FX show was a lot of fun. David Schwimmer is in it! There are Kardashians! It’s all one big soap opera. It was entertaining. When I was in college and this trial was on nonstop on every television, it was entertaining. I was aware that two people lost their lives, but somewhere along the line this became about more than that, for both entertainment and cultural reasons.