In the realm of TV documentaries, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has been unquestionably the most consistently enveloping and intriguing set of character, societal, and group studies since it started in 2010. Not only has the series given an outlet to major filmmakers like Alex Gibney, Barbara Kopple, and Morgan Spurlock, it’s shined a light on elements of all sports that have often escaped people (like this reviewer) who have never fully understood the rush of these games. Even after such small masterworks as Catching Hell, Winning Time, The House of Steinbrenner, and I Hate Christian Laettner, though, 30 for 30 has never endeavored to create anything quite as thoroughly addictive and interesting as O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman‘s expansive study of Orenthal James Simpson and the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown.
The series runs for five episodes, ultimately running over some seven hours of archival footage, reenactments, talking heads, and clips from advertisements, television, and films, all of which paint a thoroughly researched portrait of one of the greatest athletes of all time. That’s not what you would necessarily think of when you hear the name O.J. Simpson, but it’s a major part of how Edelman first digs his way into this multifaceted story, and proves to be what Edelman sees as the key into Simpson’s racial persona.
Indeed, as several of his friends and colleagues point out, Simpson saw himself as simply a man, not beholden to the struggle of African-Americans nor their advancement in culture and society; his talent allowed him to push beyond his given racial identity — at least in his opinion. His tenure at University of Southern California, where he attended with his first wife and won the Heisman trophy in 1968, brought him into contact, and put him at comfort, with white affluence; he seemingly never spoke about race, and often made a point of separating himself from other African Americans.
Despite this attitude, or more likely in spite of it, Edelman sets aside a large chunk of the runtime to investigate attitudes towards African Americans in several corners of the USA, often doing so through personal stories and details. Early on in the series, he puts Simpson’s childhood friends on screen to discuss what it was like growing up in the neighborhoods of San Francisco that were more rundown and, as such, were often reserved for the African American population. Later, Edelman takes his time to give the full sense of how the Watts and L.A. riots came to be, fueled by the heartbreak, disbelief, and outright horror at the Rodney King and Latasha Harlins cases. And in a daring move, the filmmaker goes so far as to put policemen onscreen to display the sheer ignorance they showed in handling these crises and understanding the furious discontent in the African American community.
This gives crucial shading to how race came to play a key part in the defense of Simpson during the trial over Nicole Brown’s murder. But before Edelman even enters that phase of Simpson’s life, he displays the terrifying downward spiral of domestic abuse that Brown sustained after years of marriage to Simpson. The great tragedy of Brown’s last months and years comes from the general refusal to admonish someone as famous and outwardly kind to others as Simpson, who had several reports of abuse swept under the rug. In these instances, I was reminded of a sequence from The Hunting Ground wherein the guilt of a famed college athlete in a rape case is completely ignored by fans of the player, who accuse the victim of being jealous, opportunistic, and a liar. The spell that fame casts is portrayed here (and in The Hunting Ground, for that matter) as both seductive and tragic, a way of seeing only the best in complicated, often dangerous people and therefore instantly able to acquit them of very serious crimes.
Having only seen the first half or so of the series, it’s staggering to consider the sheer amount of information it conveys, and the variety of sides to this talented, violent man that we get. There’s a great moment where a childhood friend tells a story of how Simpson slyly talked his way out of getting in trouble in high school for shooting dice in the bathroom with friends, and it touches on the striking, scary self-interest that would eventually turn him into an abuser and, arguably, a murderer.
Even as these darker elements grow, Edelman is careful to also show how much of an innovator and groundbreaker that Simpson was, in terms of marketing and presenting himself as the quintessential All-American. Here was a man who starred in movies, appeared on television and in a famous Hertz advertising campaign, worked as a sports commentator, and more — those accomplishments only touch on the more memorable elements of his career beyond athletics. He was good for all time zones, as they say, and yet there’s a continuous, eerie sense in this series that this denial of his own idiosyncrasies, personal turmoil, and even race led to him becoming so controlling, so vehement in the protection of his image.
In a way, Edelman’s vision of Orenthal James Simpson is a classic tale of repression, of an expert image-maker losing hold of his facade, lashing out and finally crumbling in the aftermath. The sheer vastness of what O.J.: Made in America covers, however, makes it clear that the feelings plaguing Simpson were not unique to him, and certainly haven’t dissipated in the realm of sports or, for that matter, in America on the whole.
Rating: ★★★★ – Very Good