O.J.: Made in America is not a call to revolution. It is not a smear campaign or an overt attack on the LAPD or any other group; instead it is a deeply analytical, deeply felt portrait of one man in the United States, but that is all that Ezra Edelman needs to create this Rorschach test of a film. It is a tragedy, an elegy, and a document of the most exacting and inclusive scope. Perhaps it is unwise to define a film in such lofty terms, but O.J.: Made in America demands it by virtue of its vital length and its monumental subject matter.
The documentary’s success is all the more surprising because it arises from the ESPN 30 for 30 unit, which exclusively deals in sports documentaries. This is not to denigrate the series as a whole (I’ve seen few, if any of the other documentaries) but to illustrate the improbability of the film’s scope. O.J. Simpson, crucially, isn’t treated as a simple entry point for the movie’s larger observations on L.A. or even the entire nation; he is given equal weight as a larger-than-life figure, and Edelman presents the sometimes unbelievable events of his improbable life with the same soberness as the boiling racial tensions of the “real world”.
This dichotomy between Simpson’s life, as his football stardom propelled him to nationwide fame and his private life spiraled, and the continual struggle of the black community in Los Angeles is perhaps the true subject of the documentary. Edelman balances the two narratives with a keen sense of balance in both runtime and content. Moving back and forth just before the viewer registers just how much time has been spent on each part, the documentary fits an almost equivalent amount of information—and, even more importantly, context—in each corresponding section. In the first three parts, where the divide is much clearer, the intersection of O.J. and L.A. is rare (most notably in the bravura 1968 section, which juxtaposes the glory of O.J.’s Heisman year and corresponding media appearances with the anger and numerous assassinations outside the USC bubble), but by the time of his trial in the closing minutes of the third part, the line is erased.
The trial is undoubtedly the most publicized and exciting part of the documentary, and the documentary delves deeply into the multiple corrosive influences and mistakes that led to the infamous verdict. But O.J.: Made in America‘s status as a look into the two subjects is made even more clear in the surrounding timespans. From the impossibly important events, such as the Watts or Rodney King riots, to the almost irrelevant, like O.J.’s movie career or his wildly successful (and illuminating) representation of Hertz car rentals, Edelman incorporates them all, teasing out the inherent racial tensions and compromises that seemed to engulf practically everything that O.J. and L.A. did over nearly half a century. The documentary never feels static or removed from the present day for many reasons, but one less evident one is the use of new non-interview footage. Often taking the form of gliding helicopter shots over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or of L.A. in general, they are used to link the stories of Simpson and Los Angeles together with no small amount of fluidity.
Without a narrator, the meat of O.J.: Made in America is the archival footage and interview that give the documentary life, and an overwhelming amount has assembled in service of a very clear thesis: to show how O.J., in some ways, is Los Angeles, embodying all of its contradictions and tensions between while covering it with a smiling facade. No aspect of O.J.’s life, and probably few of the most important events in Los Angeles, are left out, and it seems as if almost every key player (and many people on the periphery) have been convinced into appearing on camera. Footage from O.J.’s football career all the way to his current incarceration in Nevada—audaciously placed at the very beginning to throw away any illusions about his ultimate fate—is included, and not dissimilar to other narrative films it lends an added sense of poignancy to see Simpson age over the years as he walked further and further away from the light. Edelman follows him everywhere, even going down the rabbit hole of his wild living in Miami after the trial, and creates a truly human portrait of this at times mythical man, capturing his genuinely good qualities and laying them beside his irredeemable flaws, especially the extensive abuse that would lead up to the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown. The lively talking heads aid this sense of humanity, giving multiple perspectives on both O.J. and Los Angeles, and Edelman purposefully chooses not to censor any of them, leading to often conflicting and even outright racist remarks (on occasion, the editing almost creates a verbal sparring match between two interviewees).
All of this is to say that O.J.: Made in America is not a revolution in terms of its craft, a quality almost undeniably for the better. By adopting this sober, straightforward approach, Edelman focuses on the most important aspect, the information, and uses it to highlight the flaws of American society as a whole. Only O.J., who was able to effectively move between black and white culture and won his trial in large part because of his exclusive status, could work as such a galvanizing conduit. And in this method of exposé, O.J.: Made in America is its own sort of revolution, incisive but never dogmatic.