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L.A. Story

‘O.J.: Made in America’ is an extraordinary, sobering documentary with no winners

Mickey Osterreicher/Courtesy ESPN
Mickey Osterreicher/Courtesy ESPN

“When you think of 1968,”asks Ezra Edelman, director of O.J.: Made in America, “what do you think of?”

There is a right answer. We’ve just seen it—a stream of images that flew past us with the fury characteristic of that moment in history. ’68: Mexico City, black-gloved fists thrown skyward on an Olympic podium. ’68: Robert Kennedy, open-mouthed and dying on the front page of the Daily Mirror, which ran the headline, “GOD! NOT AGAIN!” ’68: Men frozen on a hotel balcony, pointing at some distance—It came from up there—as Martin Luther King Jr. lies dead at their feet.

“1968,” says the man, recalling the University of Southern California in the ’60s. The images onscreen begin another tour of the era. “I think of winning all the games. Getting O.J. famous. Everybody on campus thinking it’s the greatest thing on earth.” (Flash to white college coeds hysterically cheering during a game.) “That’s all we thought about.” (O.J. Simpson in his USC jersey, beaming.) “There was nothing else going on.”

O.J. Simpson grew up adamantly wanting to stand outside of American racial history. And once he became a public figure, he’d been encouraged by his success and the people around him, the neighbors and peers and throngs of fans, to believe he had. This is obviously impossible now: His name is, for better but more likely for worse, synonymous with that history. If it does nothing else, Edelman’s documentary will give credence to the conviction that this was an inescapable fate.

At seven and a half hours and split into five parts that will air over the course of a week, starting Saturday, on ABC and ESPN, Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America is tremendous. It is a wide-ranging, enraging survey of the racial history of Los Angeles, mostly from the mid- to late ’90s. It is not “The Life and Times of O.J.,” but it knows that story. It knows that a black man who wins the Heisman Trophy the same year as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is an automatic symbol for the inherent give and take, good and bad, win-some lose-more that defines racial progress. It knows that compromise is inherent in that progress. And it recognizes the pain inherent in that compromise.

With slow-burning fury, Edelman’s work pushes us to remember what the circus of the 1994-95 trial, that sensational mess, buried: the killings of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, on one hand, and the legal and cultural vulnerability of blacks whose names weren’t O.J., on the other. FX’s recent The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, was a useful primer on this subject, too, but perhaps for the wrong reasons: As a show interested in why the trial took off the way it did, it limited itself to what took off. Edelman is actively disinterested in that limit.

Made in America shows us that, with 20 years’ distance, we can restore the killings of Goldman and Brown Simpson to the saga of the trial and try to understand O.J.’s precise place in the history of black discontent. The result is not distraction from the essential challenges the case posed to the Los Angeles Police Department, nor is it an argument for the equivalence of a history of police brutality and the killings of two people. The result is a fuller sense of the carnage—of what we, collectively, have lost.

You could say that from early in his life, O.J. was a man who tried to make himself in our country’s image—the good version of that image, the divine myth, scrappy and aspirational and triumphant. By college, his talent was already mythic, a reputation manufactured in part by his peers, his coaches, a rabid and growing fleet of adoring strangers, and O.J. himself. These friends and others still speak of pretrial, heroic O.J. giddily—even as they’re also slipping in stories about his stealing their girlfriends. They call it the “O.J. effect”: Even his indiscretions were fun.

Stories we hear about O.J.’s early life are deliberately suggestive in that way — seemingly chock-full of insight about the man he’d become, a man increasingly distant from the black experience, especially in L.A. Edelman gives us crash courses on the Watts Riots, Rodney King, the 1992 L.A. riots. This is more than context. We see Latasha Harlins, 15 years old, get shot in the head after punching grocer Soon Ja Du, who thought she was stealing; we get a devastating tour of the homes at 39th and Dalton, which were practically destroyed during a needlessly aggressive drug raid in 1988. Edelman steeps us in the growing discontent of black Angelenos — in the growing sense of arbitrary violence and utter helplessness. Then he moves us back to Mr. Simpson. Golfing. Starring in The Naked Gun. Beating up his young new girlfriend, Nicole.

The history of Los Angeles violence and the stories of O.J.’s relationship with Nicole twine, tightly, around O.J.’s image. Our sense of parallel worlds that seem to be distinguished merely by race — one rich and white and called Brentwood, the other poor, black, and brown, an underclass whose quality of life is contingent on shifting tides in policing — is complicated by Edelman’s rhythmic back and forth between them. They become as distinct as they are inseparable, giving the documentary a startling moral backbone. You’ll notice that we spend seemingly as much time looking at Nicole’s bruised face on Polaroids she’d stored in her safety deposit box as we do at blacks’ beatings by the LAPD. That for every minute spent watching Rodney King get beaten, we had to listen to stories or audio of Nicole’s beatings. In a sequence that will undoubtedly become the focus of our discussions about the series, we’re treated to a detailed forensic analysis of Nicole’s and Ron’s killings, narrated second-to-second through close-ups of their blood stains and wounds. The show is asking us to linger.

The trial forced us to choose between the violence of racial history and the worst possible extreme of a violence wrought by intimacy. The O.J. Simpson trial hurtles into view as the heartbreaking mess it always was, this time unmitigated by the fun of the scandal and our divided country’s love of tectonic collisions. The harrowing domestic dispute calls (“He’s going to beat the shit out of me”), the bloody close-ups of slit throats, the imperfectly collected but abundant DNA evidence, the thrashing familial grief. And then, of course, Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, Eula Love, 39th and Dalton, two generations of riots, bad eggs like Mark Fuhrman.

The movie does not ask us to choose between them, as the trial once did. We shouldn’t have to. And on the heels of hours of documentary evidence to the tune of “O.J. doesn’t care about black people,” you may very well find yourself at a loss. The trial was a moral centrifuge that set these violent worlds spinning further and further apart from each other, even as they were trapped on the same ride. For seven and a half hours—but really, for two decades—we’ve been trapped on this ride, too. Enthralled by it, injured by it, and unsure of whom to blame. In a zero-sum game, we’ll always lose.