Directed by Ezra Edelman
Upon hearing of ESPN 30 for 30’s ambitious O.J. Simpson documentary, set to be aired on television in 5 parts and spanning a seven and a half hour run time, my interest was piqued only mildly. With the release of the FX series The People v O.J. Simpson, and the general disdain for the story of a man who still stands accused of having murdered two people, even after being acquitted in a court of law of the crime, I never felt like this was a story I needed to hear. But after very favorable buzz from screenings of the film from the festival circuit, and the tremendous PR campaign for the film by ESPN, I admit I became very interested in what director Ezra Edelman would have to say about Simpson and his public and legal trials. After having viewed the entire film myself, I can say that no amount of positive buzz or PR could have possibly captured just how incredible and captivating O.J.: Made in America was to experience.
In the past, the 30 for 30 series of films has seen a wide array of quality and format, stretching from relatively short, 50 minute almost summation films which relive a team, event or sports figure, to the highly successful niche subject films like The Two Escobars or even this year’s Fantastic Lies. With O.J.: Made in America, the game has clearly changed for ESPN. Director Ezra Edelman’s film is so tirelessly and meticulously researched that the run time may seem extravagant, but in many ways I still feel I would have loved to see more. The scope of the film is so vast, and yet so specific. Like any person or subject, there is a great deal behind them that makes up their personality, their upbringing, their life experiences which help to define who they are. The same can be said of O.J. Simpson, but Edelman presents such a full account of all of the culturally and personally significant events, experiences, and elements in Simpson’s life as to paint a full picture of not just the infamous murders and subsequent trials, but delve into why and how something like this could happen to such a celebrated and loved man.
Edelman’s film doesn’t feel like a 30 for 30 film, in that it feels much bigger and much more important. Although the film runs at just over 450 minutes, it never feels as long as it is (at least watching it as a 5 part mini-series). The content is so compelling I could see this easily being binge watched, as has become en vogue these days. Perhaps the greatest testament to the film’s greatness is how easily it was consumed. With each episode I was never compelled to look at the clock, and when I happened to by chance, the episode was always much further along that I would have ever imagined. Edelman and his team piece together so many different stories and bring them all together into a narrative that is at once singular and also expansive in its view of O.J. Simpson and the world of Los Angeles and America. Even more impressive is how the film is constructed and split into its five parts. Not intentionally constructed in this manner, each episode still plays out as a different part of the over-arching saga of O.J. Simpson’s life.
It becomes apparent very early on in the film that this is a subject that means quite a bit to director Ezra Edelman, as he has been able to assemble an impressive list of interviewees to be a part of the film. Often with such big profile subjects as O.J. Simpson and the “Trial of the Century”, getting the big name players to be a part of the film is difficult, but Edelman manages to include most everyone important to this story who is still alive and not incarcerated (Simpson is not interviewed). Figures like the lawyers from both sides of the trial, close friends and family members of Simpson, and those with intimate knowledge of the racial climate in Los Angeles during Simpson’s reign as sports, movie, and media darling while living in his Brentwood estate. This roster imparts invaluable insight into Simpson and the story being told by Edelman.
I didn’t think I needed an O.J. Simpson documentary, but Edelman proved me wrong by delivering a powerful and entirely enthralling storytelling experience with O.J.: Made in America, which provides incredible context around who O.J. was, what drove him to become the man we know him as today, and ultimately provide the necessary context to understand the atmosphere at the time in 1994/1995 Los Angeles, when O.J. was acquitted of the murders. The relationships established between the LAPD and the black community of Los Angeles, between the white community and Simpson, the black community and Simpson, all build to reveal an ironic and tragic dichotomy of relations which makes for a compelling indictment not of black people, or white people, rich or poor people, famous or normal people, but an indictment on America for how it handles these relations, and the brimming discrimination which is so prevalent even today.
“Masterpiece” is not a term that I throw around lightly when evaluating films, but somehow it seems like a term which is not able to completely and effectively describe what O.J.: Made in America is. Edelman’s film is the high watermark for ESPN Films and the 30 for 30 series, one which will be difficult to ever reach again, but I also hope that its success will push ESPN to keep reaching for these heights, and that it will inspire young filmmakers to be this ambitious, this thorough and passionate about their projects. Edelman and this film deserve all the praise they are receiving, and then some. O.J.: Made in America is a film which will make you mad and infuriate you, it will disgust you and even shock you. But if it does one thing, perhaps it will make you question the status quo.