ESPN’s ‘OJ: Made in America’ Documentary: 7 Things You Need to Know

Director Ezra Edelman and “30 for 30’s” Connor Schell tell TheWrap why they weren’t worried by the success of FX’s O.J. series earlier this year

COVER ESPN OJ 10 Hour Documentary Made in America
Faces who "lived the history" of OJ Simpson's rise and fall – not just the trial – gathered in Beverly Hills for ESPN's 10-hour documentary film, "O.J. Made in America." (Getty Images)

June 12 will mark the 22nd anniversary of the still-unsolved murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, but the case has never been a hotter topic in Hollywood, in part due to its NFL Hall of Fame prime suspect.

On Saturday, ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series “O.J.: Made In America” will premiere on ABC, and TheWrap got an sneak peek at the first three hours of the mammoth seven-hour, 43 minute documentary during a special presentation at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills, California, last week.

Former L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetii and O.J. Simpson “Dream Team” member Carl Douglas were two of the well-known faces from the ESPN event series in attendance.  Director Ezra Edelman welcomed about 100 guests in total who “lived this history,” he said.

Attendees included community activist Linda Jay, former O.J. agent Mike Gilbert, one-time Nicole Brown Simpson boyfriend Keith Zlomsowitch, and a number of former football players.

While details of the violent murders, Simpon’s bizarre Bronco chase, and the subsequent trial of the century captivated America, guests learned a number of new facts about the context of the case and the flawed man at the center.

Here are seven things we learned from people who lived this history.

This doc is nothing like FX’s scripted series, “The People v. O.J. Simpson”
While the FX series dramatized the spicy headlines of the 16-month timeline between the murders and acquittal, “O.J. Made In America” is an audio-visual history that illuminates aspects of American culture that became a catalyst for the courtroom spectacle.

Edelman details the decades of simmering and explosive racial tension in Los Angeles, the double standards of celebrity, and the criminal injustices involving the LAPD that eventually boiled over during the trial. An amended title for ESPN’s event series could even be, “O.J. Made By America.”

It’s 7 hours, 43 minutes long
That’s ten hours of TV time scheduled to be broadcast over five nights under ESPN’s “30 for 30” banner, making it their first documentary-event and most ambitious project to date. Since its launch in 2009 by Bill Simmons and ESPN’s Connor Schell, “30 for 30” has created countless critically-acclaimed films on culturally transcendent themes such as “Fantastic Lies,” on the Duke lacrosse rape case, “The U,” “Bad Boys,” “Straight Outta L.A.” and “Hillsborough,” detailing how 96 people were crushed to death during an English football match.

“O.J.: Made by America” first premiered in its entirety at Sundance this past January and had Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and L.A. last month, prompting speculation that it could win an Emmy, an Oscar — or both.

With ABC’s coverage of the NBA Finals performing as well as the Golden State Warriors themselves, it’s smartly-scheduled to premiere on what will definitely be on off-night for basketball no matter who wins Games 3 and 4 before then.

The murder and trial occur during nights three and four of the series
For trivia buffs and viewers saturated in facts from FX’s recent deep dive, the most fascinating segments are the under-explored timelines that bumper the trial.

Part 2 of “Made in America,” pokes into the Simpson psyche in the years after he retired from the NFL until the weeks before the murders (1979-1994). While the concluding two hours of the event series — that focus on Simpson’s years as a post-acquittal, media savvy, wandering pariah in L.A., Miami and ultimately Vegas — are as dynamic as the trial’s theatrics.

ESPN wasn’t worried by the success of the FX series earlier this year
Connor Schell, Senior Vice President and Executive Producer, ESPN Films and Original Content, greenlit the project in January 2014. Edelman then began production, aiming it for five hours “as a placeholder [length],” Schell told TheWrap at the Paley Center, suggesting that they knew it would ultimately go longer.

Then, they heard about Murphy‘s scripted FX series in development.

“Your first instinct is, ‘that’s a little disappointing that someone else is creating something potentially with the same scope of what your doing,’” Schell explained.

But when earlier this year, the FX series had almost as much media coverage as the trial itself, Schell and his team saw it as a positive.

“I loved that [the FX series] was so well received and was so good for what it was,” Schell continued. “It was great, right?”

“I knew how good this [film] was, and I knew what Ezra had made, and I knew that on its own this would get incredible attention whether it came before that, during that, after that, three years later … this is just a great film, so I stopped worrying about it,” he said.

It is uncomfortable in spots, and key figures still need media training
There were a number of the moments that drew groans or guttural responses from the crowd at the Paley Center. First off, former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman does his unfavorable reputation no favors in the film while speaking in the present day to the documentary-makers. He suggests that the Rodney King beating (shown for a painfully long time in the cut) is the natural result of the LAPD eliminating choke-out procedures, and Detective Tom Lange maintains that the Rodney King policemen never should have been prosecuted.

Meanwhile, a director of the famous Hertz rental car commercials featuring O.J. running through an airport suggests that Simpson’s appeal was that he had “white features.”

Even well-read O.J. historians will learn something new
For one, where has Carl Douglas been all these years? Johnnie Cochran’s junior colleague during the trial is dynamic, linguistically flamboyant, and honestly owns his contributions to this history. He is a standout in every interview segment and needs a media career.

The manager of Mezzaluna, the infamous Brentwood, California, restaurant where Goldman worked and where Nicole dined hours before being murdered, attended this advance screening in support of his appearances in the film.

Zlomsowitch now owns the Palm Beach outpost of famed Upper East Side preppy hangout Dorrian’s Red Hand. In a lesser known fact, which is made expressly clear in the film through a recording Simpson screaming about it on a 911 call, he is the other man who Simpson reportedly spied on for being intimate with his ex-wife.

Another footnote face in the trial who has a larger voice in the film is former LAPD spokesman David Gascom, who also made the Paley Center gathering. Gascom is seared into the American consciousness as the officer who stood up at a live news conference hours before the Bronco chase and told the world that Simpson was a fugitive.

In less harrowing news, Gascom told TheWrap that he had prepared a four page statement anticipating O.J.’s surrender on the morning of the Bronco chase on June 17, 1994. Except for the first paragraph, that speech ended up mothballed as a “Dewey Defeats Truman”-style alternative history.

Be prepared for a forensic psychological audit of L.A.
As a study in context, the doc is a dig into the historical psyche of Los Angeles.

Edelman expands the story of O.J. far beyond the city and outside the realm of the trial: from the Buffalo, New York, labor market in the late 60s, to dog whistle cues aimed at whites buried in 1970s advertising, a timely study in contrast of Simpson and the late Muhammad Ali’s politics, and topics ranging from the repercussions of repurposing abandoned Naval housing in San Francisco, to USC’s sphere of influence over all of L.A.’s glamour industries — calling out TV, film, medicine and law, specifically.

“O.J.: Made in America” premieres on ABC on Saturday, June 11 (Part 1) then moves to ESPN the following week with the next four parts airing over four days — June 14, 15, 17 and 18.