Prior to watching O.J.: Made in America, I believed I had a general understanding of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I was a very young child when it all played out, so I hadn’t experienced it as it was happening, but I’d since gleaned the necessary information through pop culture and references that came up in conversation. Or so I thought.
As I quickly found out after starting Ezra Edelman’s nearly 8-hour documentary, I knew only the very faintest outline of the major events surrounding the case. And every time I’d heard the trial and verdict mentioned, it was usually cloaked in the assumption that O.J. was guilty. Now, after completing O.J.: Made in America, I do still believe that he committed the murder. However, the path that I took to come to that conclusion is now both far better-informed and a hell of a lot murkier.
So that’s where I was at going in to O.J. Admittedly, I think my ignorance on the subject made the viewing experience more “exciting”. For someone who knows the ins and outs of the case or who followed the trial through its excruciatingly long duration, there obviously aren’t going to be as many surprises. Yet, I found that the most interesting part of O.J. was not following every twist and turn in the narrative (and, indeed, I’m sure everyone watching at the very least knows the ultimate outcome of the story) but in discovering the context that surrounded it all and contributed to the result.
Edelman does a fantastic job of providing background both in regards to O.J.’s life and to the social climate in Los Angeles at the time. The murder isn’t even addressed until a full three hours into the movie, and Edelman spends the time leading up to that essentially setting the scene for how and why things happened like they did He delves into the extreme racial tension plaguing L.A., which was still fresh off the heels of Rodney King and questions of ongoing police brutality. And while much of this might not be new information to the viewer, it is illuminating to see it all laid out at once, and it makes the ultimate trajectory of the trial a lot more comprehensible.
The film’s rich cast of interview subjects also greatly enhance the story, providing perspective from just about every angle imaginable. Yes, there are a few key players missing – most notably, Simpson himself – but Edelman more than makes up for that by speaking at length to the people who knew the ultimately unknowable O.J. the best; childhood friends, teammates, business associates, reporters, prosecutors, defense lawyers, jurors, and family members of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman all weigh in. Their responses to O.J. are as diverse as the public’s, ultimately offering no easy answers but making the story all the more fascinating and complex. And Edelman clearly has a knack for interviews, highlighting the more colourful side of more than a few of his subjects and drawing out a few tidbits in regards to O.J. that are truly damning, if true. (Which, as the film silently suggests throughout, sometimes may not actually be the case.)
Among the film’s many other rich themes, that question of truth and obfuscation permeates the narrative at every turn. In seamlessly pieced-together archival footage, we see many different sides of O.J., some of them downright charming. The whole first segment of the film (if you choose to watch it in its more easily digestible five-part format) presents O.J.’s college days and his early pro football career, and it’s easy to get swept up in that story and almost completely forget what is to come.
To that end, Edelman brings such a sense of empathy to the film that none of the subjects are portrayed as truly unlikeable or unsympathetic, even as some of them seem to uncontrollably offer up questionable views or speak of their involvement in the more unsavoury aspects of O.J.’s past. For example, O.J.’s longtime agent, Mike Gilbert (one of the film’s most fascinating and candid subjects), provides information that paints himself in questionable light as much as it does O.J. At one point, somewhat bafflingly, Gilbert admits that he always thought O.J. was guilty yet remained close with him. He seems to suggest that he would have been fine with the idea of O.J. committing second-degree murder, but his realization that it may have been premeditated was apparently the thing that was a bridge too far. It’s revelations like this – all tied into people’s murky motivations, self-interest, and damage – that complicate the story, even if you’re operating under the assumption that O.J. is indeed guilty.
Edelman knows how to craft a documentary that rises far above standard true crime fare, weaving in endless nuance to subject matter that you’d expect to be too well-worn to offer much interest. 467 minutes may sound long, but rather than feeling drawn-out, O.J.: Made in America feels like the perfect length for Edelman’s expansive scope. As the title suggests, Simpson was indeed the product of that fabled “American dream”, and without ever feeling heavy-handed, Edelman understatedly crafts perhaps a truly perfect argument to why that promised “dream” may ultimately be false.