22 years removed from the Trial of the Century, and just a few weeks removed from “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” you may wonder if there’s anything “O.J.: Made In America” can say that hasn’t been said already. Director Ezra Edelman once thought the same thing, but his five-part epic has expanded the scope of this one trial to include 50 years of American culture and conflict.
Edelman’s documentary does not touch the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman until Part 3. The first two parts of the documentary connect Simpson’s rise to stardom with major moments in African-American history, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, the same year as Simpson’s Heisman win.
Another major sports moment in 1968 was Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ protest at the Mexico City Olympics, which led to them being ostracized by a predominantly white American media and society. Around the same period, Simpson was becoming a beloved figure at USC, which at the time had a student body that was overwhelmingly white and conservative.
Edelman continues to compare the acceptance and idolization Simpson enjoyed from white America thanks to his clean image to the revulsion more counter-cultural black figures received, such as when Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali’s coincidental passing a week before this film’s premiere makes the comparison of the two men feel even more immediate.
All of this is placed over archive footage of Simpson’s interviews and commercials, which reconstruct the public image many may have forgotten he once had. Edelman constructed a magnificent portrayal of how black celebrities navigated the minefield of racial tension in the ’60s and ’70s. Some chose to fight the status quo. Others, like O.J., chose to become a part of it. And this is all just in Part 1.
In Part 2, Edelman digs into the many warning signs that might have saved Nicole Brown’s life had they been heeded. Interviews with Brown’s friends reveal a history of domestic abuse that she suffered at Simpson’s hands. Again, the film ties O.J. to social issues of the present, namely the rash of domestic violence incidents that have happened in sports recently.
Part 2 also focuses on the increased tensions between police and black communities in L.A., leading up to the Rodney King riots. Combined with Brown’s abuse, Edelman exposes how society often turns a blind eye to injustice. When that happens for too long, the worst outcomes can happen.
Parts 3 and 4 focus on the trial, and it is here where “Made In America” becomes a companion to FX’s “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” rather than a rehash. Interviews with the failed prosecutors, the successful defense attorneys, and the jurors highlight just how masterfully “The People v. O.J. Simpson” captured the driving social and legal forces that led to Simpson’s acquittal.
Another sobering moment comes in Part 4, when the film shows grisly crime scene pictures of the murder. With this shot, Edelman pauses his societal examination to give weight to the violent and tragic loss of two innocent lives that lie at the core of this moment in history.
Each part of the series builds upon the previous. Part 1 shows the celebrity culture that protected O.J. from consequence in Part 2. The racial injustice in Part 2 shows how a desire for revenge pervaded the predominantly black jury in Parts 3 and 4. And all the previous parts make O.J.’s hard fall in Part 5 even more difficult to watch.
“Made In America” shows that O.J. Simpson and the social firestorm that surrounded him his entire adult life is a reflection of modern America. It is a reflection of our prejudice, our media, and our desire to turn famous but flawed people into ideals.