Technically speaking, it’s a documentary, one that premiered on ESPN this past week, and played at the Tribeca Film Festival in May for Academy Award eligibility. However, no matter what you call this 7.5 hour work done for the network's 30 FOR 30 documentary program, it is one brilliant series, worthy of Emmys and Oscars. It’s also likely to stand as the greatest horror story on any screen this year. After all, horror doesn’t need ghosts or goblins to be terrifying. It only needs a monster of some kind. And there are many of them in O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA.
The late, great screenwriting guru Blake Snyder wrote that every horror story has a “monster in the house.” JAWS had the Great White in its residence, PSYCHO had Norman Bates, and even FATAL ATTRACTION had Alex Forrest. Here, the main monster isn’t O. J. Simpson, the titular villain at the center of it all, but rather, America. Indeed, it is our nation that filmmaker Ezra Edelman is truly pointing his finger at in his new documentary. Our shameful racial divide, as well as our outlandish obsession with celebrity, is the dual-headed monster at present in this haunting tale. Simpson is part of it, of course, but it took a lot to create such a Frankenstein’s monster.
As everyone knows, former football great and Hollywood celebrity Simpson stood trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1995, and that story is the focus here. Simpson is at the core of the narrative here, a Jekyll & Hyde figure both loathsome and pitiable, but he was also a product of American culture that for decades had allowed such a celebrated man to feel above the law.
Edelman starts his narrative by concentrating on Simpson's escape from his broken home in San Francisco into the world of sports where he excelled as a football running back. His sense of entitlement started then as he was worshipped as an athletic god, one who created enormous pride and revenue for his college USC. Suddenly, he wasn't black, as Simpson once observed, he was O.J. It was the start of the celebrity being on a first name basis with his adoring public.
Winning the Heisman Trophy, breaking all sort of college and NFL rushing records, being treated as an Adonis, it all pumped up Simpson's ego. Normal rules didn't apply to someone of his stature. And Edelman shows us how enablers of Simpson’s kept that narrative a reality for him at every turn for decades. His shenanigans were tolerated by all. Even when they turned into great sins or even crimes.
His friends, family and both his wives, by and large, ignored his numerous infidelities. His violent outbursts were suppressed by the same people, even the LAPD who should've arrested him when Nicole called them because she feared for her life. More and more, Simpson was demonstrating that he had become a very bad man, but because he was a celebrity, most were willing to look the other way.
That is, until the deaths of Brown and Goldman. When his wife divorced him, gained the upper hand, and moved on without him, Simpson couldn't take it. No one defied him in such a way. So he exploded, showing her that she wouldn't get away with it.
It didn’t help that his career at the time was also on the downswing, having failed to become the top sportscaster and/or actor he wanted to be when he retired from the gridiron. Indeed, one of the more interesting stories in the documentary is how Simpson desperately wanted to play the part of Coalhouse Walker in the movie version of E. L. Doctorow’s bestseller “Ragtime.” He was cocksure he'd secure the part, but failed to, and his pride took a big hit. That was the first of many ego bruises that Simpson suffered after he hung up his cleats. And many more tore down his ego along the way too, culminating with Nicole's rejection of him. It all set off the powder keg inside.
The documentary does a superb job of burrowing into Simpson’s psyche along the way. Perhaps the most shocking of all was how he embraced a “gangsta” lifestyle after losing the respect and goodwill of the public. The public trial and civil trial left him a pariah so Simpson found refuge in South Beach where he lived an ultra-hedonistic lifestyle filled with overindulgence, including drugs, strippers and dangerous friends. Even if they were the wrong kinds of people, they still worshipped O.J. and he needed it more than any drug. Celebrity was such for him that he needed to constantly be adored, even if it was for his sins.
Even with most of the focus of the series on Simpson, there are many other monsters at play here as well. His ex-agent Mike Gilbert admits he knew his client was guilty of the murders at the time, yet he still helped hide Simpson’s assets from the Goldman and Brown families. Another villain is Mark Fuhrman, the detective at the scene of the double homicide. He lied on the stand about using racist epithets and thereby doomed the prosecution’s case. He made it appear as if this was just another example of the LAPD having it in for an African-American. It's amazing to see the dead-eyed Fuhrman on camera here, bragging about himself and dismissing his slurs as mere language.
The greatest monster that Edelman indicts is the LAPD and its history of racial profiling and abuse. For decades, the cops had acted insidiously and the two hours of the documentary covering their history is the most horrifying part of the show. From their trampling of civil rights, to the Watts riots, to the Rodney King beating in the early 90’s, justice for blacks was dealt out horribly wrong. No wonder the trial of Simpson became such a referendum on race.
And even if you saw Sarah Paulson’s superb performance as DA Marcia Clark in FX Network’s brilliant scripted miniseries THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON this past spring, it is amazing to hear the real prosecutor give her take on things here. She’s very clear about the mistakes she made and her naiveté in assuming that the “mountain of evidence” would be enough to convict Simpson. Sadly, her co-counsel Christopher Darden declined to be interviewed for the series, and his presence is greatly missed. It would have been wonderful to hear insights from Simpson chief counsel Robert Shapiro too, but alas, he is not here except in old news footage.
Edelman did get F. Lee Bailey to go before the cameras, however, as well as two of the jurors who are quite candid here about their takes on the prosecution and defense teams. Edelman also interviewed various civil rights leaders from Los Angeles, reporters, legal experts, and other key players from the time to add great context to it all.
Most impressive is the ever-candid Fred Goldman who doesn’t mince one word about his feelings, even so many decades after. At times the lurid and outrageous story of the trial plays like some sort of Kabuki theater, but Goldman reminds us that people died, horribly, and one of them was his son Ron.
Edelman also gets extraordinary candor from many others as well. Defense attorney Carl Douglas brags, without batting an eye, about changing the framed wall hangings in Simpson’s home from photos of him with dozens of white celebrities to more admirable pictures of his black family for the jury tour. Also, one of the black jurors admits that she voted to acquit Simpson as payback for the police officers who got off scot-free from beating up Rodney King. And Bailey gleefully brags about how he goaded Darden into getting Simpson to try on the gloves when he insulted the assistant D.A.'s manhood. One of the most revelatory testimonies is when Gilbert tells of how he and Simpson rigged the glove test when O.J. purposefully stopped taking his arthritis medication so his hands would swell.
And some of the footage and pictures Edelman presents here are simply stunning finds. Outtakes of Simpson rehearsing for the cameras, home movie footage of him at Rockingham, and extensive video from the hotel cameras when he and his thugs stole the sports memorabilia that led to his current incarceration for 33 years - it's all here. And fascinating.
And then there are the explicit shots of the neck wounds that Brown and Goldman suffered, two pictures that up until now had always been presented with black bars over the wounds. This time the camera is unflinching as it forces us to see just how violent those murders truly were.
In the final analysis, Edelman is suggesting that our society is both the villain of the piece, as well as its greatest victim. Our country's shameful racial history and out-of-control celebrity culture created such a toxic environment for Simpson and other participants to exist in. And Edelman makes us wonder if much has changed in the 21 years since the "trial of the century."
Yes, racial relations have improved in many respects, as the election of an African-American president twice in this nation will attest. Yet “birther-ism” and bigotry continue to plague that feat, and xenophobic citizens still chomp at the bit every chance they get to discredit the accomplishments of Barack Obama by suggesting he's not even American, or a secret Muslim, or worse. Some even end up being their political party's presumptive presidential nominee.
Edelman asks if our justice system has gotten any better since O.J. Is the racial divide less? Are we still a nation of haves and have nots? Is the nation’s celebrity culture more obsessive than ever? Clearly, this documentarian believes that our tragic story continues, with the United States not being much wiser for having lived through it all. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA remains not only a great documentary, but ultimately a terrifying tale of horror. It's also quite a tragedy.