By the end of Part 1 of O.J.: Made in America, director Ezra Edelman had given us not only a rundown of how O.J. Simpson became famous, but a comprehensive view of race and America’s evolving relationship to it during his football career. Part 2, was about rising tension, in Simpson’s marriage to Nicole Brown on one hand and between the LAPD and Los Angeles’s black community on the other. Both subjects resulted in an episode that was at turns emotionally draining and infuriating.
When it comes to Nicole Brown and O.J. Simpson, you can’t help but feel frustrated by how utterly avoidable her death was (that is, if you accept Edelman’s implication that O.J. killed her). In a call to police placed in 1993, you can hear how terrified Brown is as Simpson rants angrily in the background, but you can also hear her exhaustion. When the call begins, she sounds merely annoyed, as if she’s been through this many times before. And as Edelman soon reveals, she had been. By 1989 alone, the police had been called to the Simpsons’ house on North Rockingham Avenue 8 times. And yet the police took no serious action until New Year’s Eve 1989, after Simpson fled police custody. Even then, he received little negative press and he fulfilled his court-mandated community service by planning and playing in a celebrity golf tournament. Seriously. What Edelman seems to be suggesting here is that Simpson’s charisma and more importantly his celebrity gave him a privileged relationship with police that eventually led to Brown’s death.
Contrast that with the episode’s other subject, the antagonism between the LAPD and the black community in Los Angeles. Watching the build up to the L.A. Riots now, after the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement and the events in Ferguson, it’s downright disturbing to see the way history seems to repeat itself. Similar to the Eric Garner case in New York, video of Rodney King being beaten by four police officers while others stood by electrified America and the world in the early ’90s and when the four officers tried for the incident were initially acquitted (two were later convicted at the federal level), large-scale violence, looting and property destruction broke out in Los Angeles. While police reaction in Ferguson could largely be characterized as too severe, the LAPD’s response was almost non-existent. LAPD Chief Daryl Gates was, ironically, fighting against police reform when rioting broke out on April 29, 1992 and left officers without a plan or leadership. As some of the officers interviewed explained, they were told to stay away–even as people were being beaten on live TV–because those in charge feared how the LAPD would look.
Speaking of the officers interviewed, the most interesting commentator on the tension between the LAPD and the black community is none other than Detective Mark Fuhrman. In case we’d all forgotten what a despicable piece of human excrement Fuhrman is, his smug explanation that the Rodney King beating is what you get when you don’t allow police officers to use chokeholds is a great reminder. Fuhrman frequently appears throughout Part 2 and it helps to both emphasize Edelman’s point about institutionalized racism in the LAPD and foreshadow the pivotal role Fuhrman’s history of racial intolerance played in the trial. However, before he can get to the trial, Edelman has to deal with everything that led up to it.
Part 3 tracks that story, beginning with the murder, through the initial investigation and ensuing media circus and ending after the opposing legal teams have been assembled. The first half is really compelling. In one of his smartest choices thus far, Edelman provides a timeline of events of the murder on June 12, 1994. As time-stamped text describes what Nicole and O.J. were doing that night, images of the places mentioned play beneath them, essentially providing subtle reenactments of the events. The moment that notes when neighbors heard Nicole Brown’s dog barking as a dog sound effect plays over nighttime shots of her building is one of the series’ most chilling yet. Considering the depth of what’s come before, you might expect Edelman to really dig into that timeline. However, by sticking to those events alone, he emphasizes not only how impossible it is for anyone except those involved to know what happened, but leaves the analysis for the trial itself. Edelman’s actually leaving a lot for the trial itself, which is why Part 3 gets weaker as it goes on.
Though Edelman does wonderful work in covering the televised Bronco chase that captivated 95 million Americans–including an excellent interview with the CBS helicopter pilot, Zoey Tur, who had the exclusive feed for 22 mins before other outlets showed up–his touch is surprisingly light when it comes to everything else that happened pre-trial. He’s clearly saving a lot for Part 4, which will cover the trial, but the way he brings together the evidence and opposing legal teams feels oddly rushed and vapid—especially when compared to this year’s other great O.J.-related piece of television, FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
Listen, Edelman has created a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. That’s undeniable. But it’s equally true that Ryan Murphy created a masterpiece of historical fiction with American Crime Story and when it comes to the investigation and even the Bronco Chase, Murphy has Edelman beat. Admittedly, Murphy has advantages. He’s dramatizing real events and he can have the people involved–through the actors who play them–react to the madness surrounding the trial as it happened. Edelman can only work with the archival footage and present day interviews he has on hand. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to include present day commentary from prosecutor Christopher Darden, whose sexual tension-filled relationship with lead prosecutor Marcia Clarke (as portrayed by Sterling K. Brown and Sarah Paulson, respectively) was one of the most compelling things about People v. O.J. Murphy’s subject was also much narrower, restricted to the trial and its players rather than its historical context. On that point, Edelman is unparalleled. Here’s hoping he returns to form when Part 4 airs Friday.
Rating: Part 2: 9/10, Part 3: 7/10