Documentary film “O.J.: Made in America” is not only impressive for its ambitious scope but also remarkable for its revealing insight. Besides its detailed examination of the dramatic rise and fall of O.J. Simpson, the documentary also provides us an enlightening commentary on its main issues, and its superlative juxtaposition of individual and social narratives is compelling enough to hold our attention throughout its 467-minute running time divided into five parts.
The first part focuses on Simpson’s athletic career during the 1960-70s, which was a glorious emblem of American dream considering his poor early years in San Francisco. When he started to play for University of Southern California (USC) in 1967, Simpson had already drawn lots of attention as a promising football player to watch, and then he quickly rose as a nationwide star athlete mainly thanks to his memorable play during the 1967 USC vs. UCLA football game. Although he did not win the Heisman Trophy in that year despite that exceptional feat, he won the trophy in the next year instead, and everyone expected greatness from him as he moved onto professional football in 1969.
Mainly because of the incompetence of coach John Rauch, Simpson’s first three years in the Buffalo Bills were disappointing to say the least, but he soon came back in his element after Rauch was replaced by Lou Saban in 1972, and nothing seemed to stop him since that point. After breaking Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record in 1973, he appeared in the commercial advertisements for Hertz rental car company in 1975, which further boosted his celebrity status in the American society. In addition, he also appeared in several movies including “The Towering Inferno” (1974) and, yes, “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988) and its two sequels.
Contrasting Simpson with other notable contemporary black athletes including Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali, the documentary makes a critical point on the unmistakable racial background behind Simpson’s fame and success. Unlike many other black athletes who were more defiant against the establishment as supporting the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, Simpson was a ‘counter-revolutionary athlete’ who had no problem with being a conformist, and he was certainly good at playing a non-controversial black figure to be widely accepted around the nation. In fact, he was so good at embodying his non-racial public persona that even he was swallowed by that fiction as driven by his growing ego as usual. When he was asked to join the boycott of the 1968 Olympic along with other prominent black athletes, he replied, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.”
In addition to looking into Simpson’s tumultuous relationship with his second wife Nicole Brown Simpson, the second part also presents the worsening race relations between the LA police department and minorities during the 1980-90s. It presents several infuriating incidents of police brutality in the black neighborhood of LA, and then we get a vivid glimpse into how the Rodney King Incident in 1992 came to be a breaking point for what had been accumulated for years. As many people were horrified and outraged by that shocking video clip showing King brutalized by several LAPD officers, LAPD could not cover up its offense as before, and its serious misjudgment on the public reaction after the following trial led to a disastrous outcome on April 29th, 1992.
Around that time, the relationship between Simpson and Nicole was deteriorated beyond repair. Even when they began to meet each other during the late 1970s, his abusive attitude to Nicole was evident, and things got only worse after they married in 1985. It is really disturbing to see the photos of her bruised faces shot not long after she called the police on New Year’s Day in 1989, and it is also chilling to see how Simpson was neither arrested nor punished for this and several other incidents of spousal abuse just because of his status as a male celebrity. Nicole eventually divorced Simpson in early 1992, and their relationship seemed to be completely over after their failed reconciliation in the next year, but, as many people around them worried, a tragedy came to happen on June 12th, 1994.
The third part gives us a detailed account of what happened after the bodies of Nicole and her boyfriend Ronald Goldman were found in her house. As evidences were collected during the following investigation, Simpson quickly became the prime suspect of this terrible murder case, and he was going to be prosecuted for the murder of his second ex-wife and her boyfriend, but then he tried to run away by his car. Many TV viewers around the country watched his vehicle being ‘escorted’ back to his residence by several police cars, and this was followed by a tense standoff between him and the police, which lasted for a while until he was persuaded not to kill himself with his gun and then surrendered himself to the police.
We see how the race factors presented in the second part played a key role during what would be remembered as the Trial of the Century. Because it was only two years after the Rodney King incident, the prosecution knew well that they should be careful and discreet, but District Attorney Gil Garcetti and his prosecutors Marcia Clark, Bill Hodgman, and Christopher Durden soon came to face a number of difficult obstacles including the frustrating selection process of jury members. On the opposite, Simpson’s defense attorneys including F. Lee Bailey, Robert Schapiro, and Johnnie Cochran were ready to use race card as expected, and the documentary does not miss a rich irony in the absurdity of their defense strategy. Simpson had usually stayed away from anything associated with race or civil rights, but now he came to be regarded as someone as symbolic as Rodney King, and many of black people were willing to believe his lawyers’ argument during that time just because they wished for a payback moment for what they had endured because of LAPD.
As following the progress of the trial, the fourth part goes deeper in the murder of Nicole and Goldman, and it has some of the most gut-wrenching moments in the documentary. The photos from that bloody murder scene are horrible to watch to say the least, and we also get an unnerving forensic description of how Nicole and Goldman were killed by Simpson, who is indubitably guilty of this savage murder as we all know at present.
However, as his trial became a big national media circus beyond their control, the prosecution made several crucial mistakes and misjudgments, and Cochran and other defense lawyers strategically muddled up the trial at every turn. It is undeniable that the murder scene was not properly handled by LAPD, and it is also inarguable that Mark Fuhrman, a police officer who found those famous bloodied gloves in question, was a downright racist even though he denies that during his interview. As a result, Simpson and his defense lawyers could induce more reasonable doubts among the jury members, and Clark and Darden knew they lost when the defense team showed the jury members that the gloves did not fit to Simpson’s hands (we learn later that Simpson deliberately had his fingers swelled up through not taking his arthritis medicine).
After showing Simpson’s eventual acquittal and the following public reaction, the fifth part feels like an overlong epilogue at times, but it has another share of dark absurdity as showing us Simpson’s subsequent downward spiral which ultimately sealed his fate. With his completely changed celebrity status which made him far less welcoming than before, he went down and down into more troubles and debaucheries, and some of archival footage clips from that period are utterly cringe-inducing for the hedonistic despair glimpsed from him.
Simpson was eventually arrested for armed robbery in Las Vegas in 2007 and then sentenced to 33 years imprisonment, and there was quite an absurd poetic justice in that mainly because of how silly the motive behind his crime was – and how thoughtless he and his accomplices were. As shown at the beginning of the documentary, he is still in a state penitentiary, and he will be eligible for parole around the end of the next year.
Skillfully mixing heaps of various interview and archival clips together into a clear and engaging narrative flow, the director Ezra Edelman gives us what is akin to a top-notch nonfiction novel which would make you want more in the end, and I came to learn a lot more than expected from his complex tapestry of race, celebrity, and crime. “O.J.: Made in America” is a superb achievement on the whole, and I must say that this great documentary is all the more relevant considering how the absurdities shown from the documentary are not so far from the ones we recently saw from the deranged result of the US presidential election in this year, which clearly demonstrated to many of us that race and celebrity still matter much more than they admit in the American society. They still have the same old issues to deal with, and they will probably need to talk about them more than ever.