A few minutes before O.J.: Made in America began, I was nervous. I’d heard so many good things and I’m a hardcore 30 for 30 fan. How could I help but be disappointed? A few minutes into the episode, it was clear: this thing is a masterpiece.
Directed by Ezra Edelman (who’s made a number of sports documentaries), the film’s ostensible subject is the infamous mid-’90s trial in which former football star Orenthal James Simpson was acquitted for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. However, the true scope is much larger. In the first part alone, Edelman covers Simpson’s college football years at USC, the Watts Riots in Los Angeles in 1965, Simpson’s years with the Buffalo Bills and his growing celebrity at the close of the ’70s. The documentary is sprawling, to say the least, but to call it a tour de force would be to ignore Edelman’s authorial voice. You can actually sense him directing the story throughout, drawing connections between the disparate parts that made the Trial of the Century possible.
Rather than start at the beginning, though, Edelman goes right to present-day Simpson, who’s been living in the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada since being convicted in December 2008 on a number of counts including armed robbery and kidnapping. In the footage, he seems amiable, jolly even, as he talks about his life at Lovelock. And then the woman questioning him brings up the first time he was arrested in 1994. After a long, pregnant pause, he responds with “We’re talking about this case?” clearly annoyed. It’s a moment that speaks volumes, but perhaps the one that speaks even more comes a few moments prior. Over shots of the barren desert surrounding Lovelock, Simpson talks in voice-over about how when he was a child, he didn’t necessarily want money, he wanted fame. That’s the true subject of the first part in this series.
In the first of many jarring jumps, Edelman then brings us to Simpson’s college football career at USC in the late 1960s. Despite everything else, O.J. Simpson was an exceptional athlete. Activist Dr. Harry Edwards rather crassly says that Simpson could run, “like foreign water through a tourist,” but the fact is, what Simpson could do on a football field inspired people and made them experience awe. Take the famous 64-yard run against UCLA in 1967. That one feat of physical prowess put him on the map and the following season, in which he won the Heisman Trophy, made him a national star. In one of Part 1’s most remarkable scenes, Edelman asks Simpson’s USC teammate Fred Khasigian what he remembers about 1968 and as Khasigian struggles to think of something, images flash on the screen of the MLK and RFK assassinations as well as the moment when two American sprinters gave the Black Power salute while receiving their medals at the Summer Olympics. Yet what Khasigian finally comes up with is O.J.’s season and winning the Heisman.
To a non-Angeleno, this moment probably reads as insane if not borderline repellant. And it is, but it’s also an expression of the fact that USC football is nothing short of a religion in Southern California and for a few years, Simpson was a god to Trojan fans. Still, the historical context Edelman throws into that moment is impossible to ignore. It’s frankly incredible how much of America’s history–specifically in regards to race–Edelman packs in. All that context can be overwhelming and after two hours, it can even be a little exhausting, but what Edelman is trying to do is show what was happening in America around Simpson’s rise to fame and the way he essentially ignored it.
There’s a lot of discussion throughout about the way Simpson’s celebrity slowly separated him from his blackness. On one level, that was Simpson’s doing. When asked to add his voice to Muhammad Ali’s and others’ in condemning the Vietnam War and openly addressing racism in the United States, his response was to declare, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” As he and many of those interviewed express, he didn’t want to be seen for his race, but for his accomplishments. On one hand, there’s merit in that, but there’s also selfishness and arrogance there too. Yet Simpson didn’t erase his blackness on his own. White culture accepted him and gave him the sense of privilege that he willingly exploited. As childhood friend Joe Bell puts it, Simpson was “seduced” by white society. And he seduced it in turn.
As former Hertz CEO Frank Olson explains, when Simpson was made the company’s spokesman in the ’70s, they deliberately worked to make him seem non-threatening as he ran through airports in their commercials by having harmless white people like little old ladies and Girl Scouts cheer him on. While the mere image of Simpson advertising for a major company on national television would was inspiring for the black community, that commercial also presented him as a comforting image of blackness that contrasted with black civil rights. Rather than buck against that image, though, Edelman suggests that Simpson reveled in it because it gave him an unbelievable level of privilege. Yet as Dr. Harry Edwards notes, O.J. was only able to have the privilege he enjoyed because other black athletes put their careers on the line and spoke out against injustice. Simpson had no appreciation of that fact; he believed he had done it all himself.
That’s the headspace O.J. is in at the end of Part 1, just when 18-year-old club waitress Nicole Brown is introduced. Their initial interactions encapsulate how much he’d changed from the guy who inspired people at USC. Still married to his first wife Marguerite at the time, Simpson declared he would marry Nicole within moments of seeing her and quickly began making promises, even offering to buy her an apartment. Already there’s a suggestion of violence between them as one of Nicole’s friends recalls that her jeans were ripped when she came back from her first date with O.J. and Nicole dismissed the behavior as merely insistent. It’s a chilling revelation, but one that’s meant as a tease. Part 1 ends there, on the cusp of the doomed relationship that would come to define O.J.’s celebrity just as much as his football career. If Part 1 is what Edelman can do in reviewing Simpson’s football career, imagine what he’ll do with that marriage. Thankfully, we only have to wait until Tuesday to find out.