In the second installment of ESPN’s excellent “OJ: Made in America,” we see O.J. Simpson sit for a softball interview with ESPN’s Roy Firestone.
It’s 1989 — five years before Simpson will be charged with his wife’s murder. He has pleaded no contest to beating her in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day.
Firestone just can’t believe it. “It got to such a point that you were portrayed in the press for a while there like a wife beater!” he says.
“OJ: Made in America” feels like ESPN’s way of documenting its past mistakes — and everyone else’s, too. The carnival grotesquerie around the Simpson case has enabled us all to ignore the most horrible truth of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murders: They were achingly preventable.
Fantasy and distortion have pervaded all things O.J. Simpson, including the reality-bending outcome of the case.
We, the viewers, sometimes focused more on an attorney’s hair and clothes than on the testimony. Simpson himself spent two decades deluding himself into believing that he wasn’t black, he was O.J. Watching Hollywood stars portray the key players in FX’s brilliant “People v OJ Simpson” did nothing to diminish the feelings of unreality.
All contribute to the sense that this was a trial not in America, but in La La Land.
But it did happen in America. And the new five-part documentary by Ezra Edelman finally brings the case back to reality.
It may also explain why we’ve spun so many fantasies around Simpson: to avoid looking at the real-life problems that led to the murders and Simpson’s farcical acquittal.
America, starting with the lily white USC of the 1960s, rewarded Simpson for ignoring the struggles of other African Americans. Police and the news media didn’t take Nicole Brown Simpson’s many, many cries for help seriously.
The film shows that the LAPD terrorized many people in African American neighborhoods long before one attack, the beating of Rodney King, was captured on video. The failure to convict the cops who beat him sparked riots that killed 55 people in 1992.
The LAPD’s failings — epitomized by officer Mark Fuhrman’s use of the N-word, on tape — allowed Simpson’s attorneys to claim he was the victim of a racist conspiracy, and the predominantly black jury let him go.
Many white Americans were understandably furious at the verdict, but not as furious as we should have been at years of obvious police brutality. The public failed to force the LAPD to weed out its bad cops. And that gave Simpson the opening he needed to get away with murder.
All of this happened and could happen again.
“OJ: Made in America” lays out the evidence patiently, giving all sides their due. It is eminently fair. For all the criticism of the police, the film underscores the restraint of the LAPD cops on the night of the white Bronco chase. Simpson was an armed fugitive wanted for double murder who refused to give up his gun. The police could have shot him on sight.
The film might even make you feel sorry for Simpson — or at least who he could have been if not for an unchecked selfishness, raging temper and well-fueled sense of invulnerability. Those under 30 may be shocked to learn, in the first installment, that many people once saw Simpson as a hero.
But the documentary isn’t trying to convict O.J. Simpson. It presents evidence about America itself — its racism, its sexism, its head-in-the-sand deification of celebrities — and shows how our failings contributed to the many crimes committed in the Simpson case.
The third installment of the film shows O.J. Simpson’s lead defense attorney, Johnnie Cochran, quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his opening statement to jurors.
“Injustice anywhere,” he says, “is a threat to justice anywhere.”
In Los Angeles, in the mid-1990s, injustice everywhere led to injustice in one specific courtroom, for two specific victims. And the whole country was a little bit guilty.
“O.J.: Made in America,” which premiered in June 2016, will be rebroadcast on ESPN starting Tuesday, March 24. Tuesday: Part 1 at 7 p.m., Part 2 at 9. Wednesday: Part 3 at 7 p.m., Part 4 at 9 p.m. Thursday: Part 4 at 7 p.m., Part 5 at 9.
Check out TheWrap’s picks for the best “30 for 30” films ever made below.