Review: ESPN's O.J. Simpson documentary is even better than FX's 'The People v. O.J.'
The TV event of 2016 so far was surely FX's marvelous miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which turned the Trial of the (last) Century into 10 fascinating, funny, tragic hours of drama that shed new light on a case that most of its viewers thought they already knew by heart.
Given the phenomenon of The People v. O.J., you would think a five-part, 7.5-hour (10 with commercials) documentary on the same subject would be redundant. Who needs to spend even more time watching a retelling of Simpson's trial for murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman?
Instead, ESPN's newest 30 for 30 film O.J. Simpson: Made in America(*) proves to not only be better than The People v. O.J. — and among the best things ESPN has aired in its history — but a perfect complement to the FX show. Where People v. O.J. was mostly interested in the members of the two rival legal teams, Made in America is about everyone else — but especially Simpson himself.
(*) Part 1 debuts Saturday night at 9 on ABC; the remaining installments will air next Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 9 on ESPN.
Between the miscasting of Cuba Gooding Jr. (wrong size, wrong voice, not at all the Greek god the real Juice was) and the writers' reluctance to weigh in on Simpson's guilt or innocence, The People v. O.J. left its title character as a cipher, best ignored in favor of juicier conflicts between Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran, and Christopher Darden. Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman, reverses that dynamic. Though Simpson himself is one of the few major surviving figures from the case to not be interviewed, he is at the forefront of nearly every scene and conversation. And when he's not, it's because Edelman is diving very deep into the larger sociological issues that created a climate in which Simpson could be acquitted despite a circumstance where, as Clark recalls, "I don't think I'd ever seen that much evidence in any single case ever."
Among the many impressive aspects of the film is how it could be broken down into component parts that would each be fantastic documentaries in their own right. The bulk of part 1, for instance, does a superb job illustrating O.J.'s athletic genius, as well as his willing seduction by white society, and the ways that society worked very hard — say, for instance, making sure that everyone cheering Simpson on during his run through the airport in those iconic Hertz commercials was white — to downplay his fundamental blackness. Again and again, the film's subjects observe how Simpson was turned into an honorary white person, but never more bluntly than when news copter pilot Zoey Tur(*), recalling how the police kept their distance during the infamous white Ford Bronco freeway chase, says that "If O.J. were black," he'd have been stopped and beaten — an assertion that Edelman supports with ample footage of the violent end result of chases featuring less famous black fugitives.
(*) Tur, who is transgender, and who played memorable roles in both the Bronco chase and the L.A. riots, would be an interesting documentary subject herself. Here, though, she's just one small member of the big and complicated cast of characters surrounding the trial.
Part 2 toggles back and forth between O.J. and Nicole's increasingly abusive relationship and the culture of mistrust that had grown between Los Angeles' black community and its police force, and that exploded with the Rodney King beating, the acquittal of the officers involved, and the riots that followed. All of the the material on the latter subject would make for a powerful movie on its own, but Made in America repeatedly demonstrates how you can't really separate LA's racial unrest from the Simpson story, and vice versa. Though Simpson had done everything possible to distance himself from the community that felt it was under siege by the LAPD, that community rallied around him during the trial because of what his conviction or acquittal would represent. Even 22 years later, when all but a few of Simpson's oldest and dearest friends seem to have accepted the likelihood of his guilt, several of the people interviewed for the film admit to no regrets for vocally supporting him during the trial. As one civil rights activist bluntly puts it, "I was using O.J. Simpson for our cause."
The access Edelman got for the film is amazing, with people from all corners of Simpson's life, and of the trial itself, all agreeing to talk: friends from Simpson's childhood in San Francisco; college and pro football teammates; executives from companies that used Simpson as a spokesperson (and who now look deeply ashamed by the association); Hollywood people who worked with Simpson during his acting career; Clark (who has the funniest line of the whole film), Gil Garcetti and Bill Hodgman from the prosecution; from the defense, Barry Scheck, F. Lee Bailey, and Carl Douglas (functioning as a surrogate within the film for Cochran, who died in 2005); two of the jurors (who offer very different rationales for their vote to acquit); Fred Goldman and members of Nicole's friends and family; reporters Jeffrey Toobin (whose book The Run of His Life formed the spine of The People v. O.J.) and Robert Lipsyte; and, in the biggest, most unsettling coup, former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman, whose history of racist comments did as much as anything else to torpedo the people's case against Simpson.
While most of the interview subjects are incredibly candid and often self-lacerating, Fuhrman remains defiant throughout. He acknowledges his past use of the N-word, but insists, "I had a bad couple years, but I came out... better. I came out of it. It is what it is." Later, in perhaps the film's most extraordinary moment, we hear Edelman ask Fuhrman whether he genuinely believed the vile things he said on the audiotapes played during the trial(*); Fuhrman's answer is a rambling non-sequitur that has to be heard to be believed.
(*) This is another instance where the documentary and the FX show are unintentionally complementary of one another: the latter devoted a lot of time to the gamesmanship between the defense and prosecution over whether those tapes would be introduced into evidence, which makes their absence from the former much less glaring.
Though Simpson himself only speaks through archival news footage and occasional audio recordings, Edelman paints a rich, three-dimensional, tragic portrait of the man, finding telling anecdotes from throughout his life that help explain both how he ended up in that courtroom and how he walked out of it a free man. (Part 5 mainly focuses on his post-acquittal life, including the circumstances of his later conviction for kidnapping and armed robbery, capturing it in such seedy detail that you'll likely need to shower after.) Nicole herself also comes into much sharper focus, and the film is unflinching in how — through a combination of interviews, 911 recordings, and crime scene photos — it lays out the pattern of physical and emotional abuse she was trapped in long before the night she and Ron Goldman were brutally killed.
When it comes to retelling true stories, there's long been an accepted hierarchy: documentaries way at the top, then scripted versions that aspire to documentary-level realism and accuracy, then a long gap before we get to ones that are more willing to fictionalize things for the sake of storytelling. By that standard, The People v. O.J. (which fudged various details, and at times — usually when John Travolta was on screen — bordered on camp) should come up badly wanting next to Made in America. But while I ultimately found the documentary the more powerful and effective of the two, it's far from a rout. Each series has its own storytelling interests, and rules, and they combine to tell an even fuller accounting of all that happened before, during, and after the trial. (If anything, Made in America boosted my appreciation of parts of The People v. O.J. I already loved, like realizing just how well Sterling K. Brown captured Darden's voice.)
The O.J. case is decades old, and so famous that it was seemingly picked clean long before now. Yet somehow, 2016 has offered two different TV projects that not only find new life in that story, but are so well-told in such different ways that each winds up making the other look better.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org