It’s impossible not to think of Muhammad Ali when viewing O.J.: Made in America, filmmaker Ezra Edelman’s absorbing five-part, seven-and-a-half-hour documentary about the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson for ESPN’s venerable 30 for 30 series. When Muhammad Ali died on June 3 at the age of 74, the world didn’t just mourn the loss of a gifted athlete, it also lamented the loss of a fiery political figure. He was someone who spoke truth to power, who through his actions declared that “Black Lives Matter,” who refused to let the world forget that he was both black and Muslim, no matter what the cost. Those convictions cost him dearly.
That was a price O.J. Simpson refused to pay. Unlike his contemporaries Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell, Simpson declined to speak out against racial and social injustices during the political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. He was disinterested in seeing himself as black, as part of a larger whole—until, that is, it became a defense strategy when he went on trial for the murder of his wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. As with every 30 for 30 installment, sports is the Trojan horse used to examine deeper matters, in this case, issues of race, class, sexuality, misogyny, and America’s culture of violence, particularly violence against women.
Much of the first episode is spent exploring the racial tensions between LA’s black population and the LAPD, dating back to the 1940s. By examining the history of the LAPD reputedly recruiting officers at Klan rallies, the root causes of the 1965 Watts Riot, the 1991 murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, and the ’91 beating of Rodney King and subsequent acquittal of the four police officers who struck him, O.J.: Made in America deftly provides context for two things: why O.J. distanced himself from politics and his blackness in his heyday, and why the defense successfully engendered so much support for O.J. during his trial.
Given that history and the buildup of such enormous and well-founded distrust in LA’s law enforcement on the part of the black community, the defense team’s theory that racist LAPD officers conspired to railroad a black man wasn’t that far-fetched. It was understandable that the case became more about race relations in America and less about Nicole and domestic violence. And that’s unfortunate.
O.J. Simpson was a serial abuser, full stop. When they first met, Nicole was 18, and he was still married to his first wife, Marguerite (who wasn’t interviewed for this documentary—how different things might be if we had her perspective on all that has transpired). David LeBon, a friend and roommate of Nicole’s, mentioned that the night after O.J. and Nicole met, she came back with ripped jeans and told him O.J. had been “a little bit forceful.” O.J. terrorized Nicole throughout their entire marriage. Eight times the police made domestic violence calls to their house on. And all eight times, the police left O.J. alone with Nicole afterward. Ironically, the same LAPD accused during the trial of conspiring to frame O.J. actually spent years working in his favor.
Seduced by celebrity, power, and athletic prowess, the LAPD protected O.J. and covered up his abuse. In Nicole’s 911 calls, she sounds frightened, but also exasperated. It’s chilling to hear the resignation in her voice. She sounds like she knows she’s already lost, a point that hits home when the documentary reveals her handwritten will and photos of her bruised and battered face that she kept in a safe deposit box. The documentary shows the crime scene photos of her body, drenched in blood, nearly decapitated. The brutality of her murder, revealed plainly and clearly for the first time in two decades, is absolutely horrifying.
Those photos, along with store-surveillance footage of the murder of Harlins (whose killer received only probation) and archival interviews with black women whose houses were destroyed by LAPD officers in raids during the “war on drugs” of the 80s and 90s are all a heartbreaking indictment of the criminal justice system and its tendency to fail women over and over again, whether they’re black, white, rich, middle-class, or poor. All of these images taken together make for extremely difficult, painful, and yet necessary viewing.
What also stands out is the candor of so many of the interviewees, which include Nicole Simpson’s friends, O.J. Simpson’s friends and business associates, former LAPD officers (including Mark Fuhrman), and former prosecutor Marcia Clark. Many of the people interviewed make, at best, problematic declarations about race and class.
Examples range from Fred Levinson, the director of Simpson’s Hertz commercials, saying O.J. didn’t have a “typical African look” to the CEO of Hertz, Frank Olson, saying “For us, O.J. was colorless. None of us looked at him as a black man” to Fuhrman saying that the King beating could’ve been prevented if officers had been allowed to use the choke hold. Zoey Tur, the reporter and helicopter pilot who filmed the infamous Bronco chase—and who is also a trans woman—made a poignant connection between her transition and O.J.’s decline. “Very few human beings fall as far as O.J. Simpson,” she says. “I’ve fallen quite a bit transitioning. You go from a hero pilot to some tranny. So I’ve fallen somewhat myself. But this is an epic fall.”
And what a fall it was. After O.J. was acquitted of double homicide in 1995, his life spiraled into a fog of drug and alcohol abuse, bizarre reality-show appearances, transparently insincere attempts to ingratiate himself with black people, and a disastrous attempt to retrieve his sports memorabilia in Las Vegas. It was this attempt that led to a 33-year prison sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping.
Ultimately, O.J.: Made in America is fascinating precisely because it isn’t really about one man’s spectacularly ugly fall from grace: It is about us. It is about society’s failure, even in 2016, to admit that racism is interwoven tightly into the fabric of this country and to reconcile how it continues to manifest itself in shocking, often brutal ways. It is about a culture of violence that runs deep in America, as we’ve seen once again in the wake of the tragic mass shooting in Orlando that targeted mostly Latino LGBT people, in the wake of the Rekia Boyds and Laquan McDonalds and Sandra Blands and Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins, in the wake of the Stanford rape case, in the wake of the Reader‘s own investigation of 20 years of alleged abuse at Profiles Theatre. It is about our willingness to be seduced by celebrity, to look the other way when we see injustice because the perpetrator is handsome, charismatic, and gifted in ways that perhaps we wish we were. It is about America’s obsession with winning at all costs, no matter who gets hurt—or even killed—in the process.
O.J.: Made in America All episodes streaming on espn.go.com.