“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.
Then I finally saw the murder photos.
They were horrifying and I felt horrified. They are absolutely gruesome and haven’t been seen before this documentary. (Edelman got the photos from Bill Hodgman, who was a prosecutor in the trial and does participate.)
“This is something that turned into the commoditized circus,” says Edelman. “Two people got brutally murdered — all this nonsense was caused by this.”
Edelman saves his scorn the most for people who believe O.J. is guilty, but still like O.J. as a celebrity, “Anybody who wants to say, “Yeah, but…” It’s like, no, that’s what happened.”
“It’s not my job to take him to task for things he may or may not have done or said 30 or 40 years ago. It’s my job to get him to speak openly and honestly about the experience he went through during the trial.”
That’s Edelman describing what it was like to sit in a room with Mark Fuhrman, a man who even manages to pull off the impossible and eek out a grain of viewer empathy — which is more of a testimony to O.J.: Made in America than it is Fuhrman.
Edelman explains, “Then that’s the correct response. I don’t think it’s wrong for you to feel empathy for Mark Fuhrman. He is a human being. I do believe he is someone who has thought a lot about what happened.”
Fuhrman, as we know, pleaded the fifth during the trial after it was revealed he had made a series of recordings with an aspiring screenwriter in which he repeats racially charged language — words he expressly said he had never used earlier in the trial. Fuhrman was the breaking point for a trial that, in the end, was less about O.J. Simpson and more about the relationship between Los Angeles and its African-American residents. By the time we get to the verdict in O.J.: Made in America, everything makes sense why a person reacted the way he or she did. O.J.: Made in America isn’t about a man as much as it’s about humanity.
Edelman did yeoman’s work assembling as many of the living participants as he could. (Carl Douglas from Johnnie Cochran’s firm is a standout; most notably his version of the story about changing all the pictures at O.J.’s house so the jury would see O.J. with more African American friends. He admits that if the jury had been Hispanic, they would have put a piñata in the front yard and a mariachi band coming down the stairs.)
Fuhrman was the most difficult to get of the people who wound up participating, but the one who got away was prosecutor Christopher Darden. While others flirted with doing the documentary, the requests to Darden basically went ignored.
“He was just completely not interested,” remembers Edleman. “I wrote him a letter, he didn’t respond. I called him, he didn’t respond.” He continues, “There are four main people in the prosecution and I was very well aware that basically none of them talk. Period. And haven’t, more or less, for the last 20 years. But Darden was number one on the list. It’s like, I would take Darden and no one else. I actually really went after him first and foremost.”
He continues, “I felt very compelled, if I’m going to do this, I better get the primary sources to tell the story at every point in the story. Then it’s not worth doing. Then it’s someone regurgitating the same shit.”
Another person missing is, of course, O.J. Simpson himself. But the film doesn’t suffer for that. And unless Simpson has done some serious soul searching since his current jail sentence started in 2008, I can’t really think of anything his usual rhetoric would add.
Edelman did inquire about speaking to Simpson, “Technically, legally, he’s allowed to. There are extenuating circumstances to why he hasn’t.” Adding, “Setting out, it wasn’t that getting O.J. to sit in the chair was primary to the execution of this.”
In fact, the last chapter of Edelman’s film is all about the incident in Las Vegas, which is still very confusing and involves guns, memorabilia dealers and alcohol. Edelman thinks the facts of that story are basically irrelevant, “The details of it are sort of unimportant. It’s more the idea, wait a second, O.J. is hanging out with these people in Las Vegas and he goes to a hotel room with dudes with guns to take back his own shit? The scenario itself is farcical. Is it, he’s O.J., so he thinks he can get away with it? Has it gotten to such a point that none of this fucking matters anymore? Is it, oh yeah, he’d been drinking all that day? In some ways, O.J.’s trajectory and his story can be traced by the characters who are telling the story at any given time.”
There’s nothing fun about O.J.: Made in America, but it’s essential viewing. Strangely, there are moments in the documentary that far exceed the FX’s series in terms of ludicrousness. In the FX series, Simpson has a party at his house the night he is acquitted and it’s a sad party because his former friends aren’t there. In the documentary, there is actual video of a party at Simpson’s house as soon as he arrives from court, with all of his attorneys, minus Robert Shapiro.
There’s Simpson — not Cuba Gooding Jr., but the real Simpson — screaming at then District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who happened to be on Simpson’s television. (Edelman adds this story from the O.J.: Made in America’s Sundance Film Festival premiere, “I looked over at Garcetti during that moment and he just had the biggest smile on his face.) There’s Simpson and F. Lee Bailey, watching Shapiro renounce the rest of the defense team on live television. It’s surreal. And the whole thing is depressing.
“You felt betrayed by a guy you had never met and was never going to meet. If you can’t then explain how he became that guy, you’re missing the story,” says Edelman. “It should be depressing. It is depressing. You should feel like the whole thing was a big punch in the gut.”
(O.J.: Made In America will premiere on ABC on June 11, but the following parts will air on ESPN on June 14, 15, 17, and 18.)
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.