Review: OJ: Made In America
I always wonder at what point an artist realizes they are making something special. At what point did David Chase realize that The Sopranos was going to change the future of television? At what point did Lin Manuel Miranda realize that Hamilton was going to draw rightful comparisons to the works of Shakespeare? So too, I wonder whether Ezra Edelman realizes that he may have altered the fabric of documentary filmmaking. Told in 5 parts, this 7+ hour excursion is utterly captivating throughout. The story, the rise and fall of Orenthal James Simpson in 20th Century America. Race, Los Angeles, fame and wealth are all handled with aplomb. If the documentary were just dealing in one of those topics, it would have a claim to being the best ever to tackle the topic. That it is handling all of them, as well as their interconnectedness, so fluidly, is reason to truly stop and appreciate this gift.
The O.J. Simpson saga is well-traveled ground at this point. Not only was there once around the clock news coverage of every aspect of the trial, but in the two decades since, there has been a certain obsession with discussing everything that took place. Dozens of people will one day have the drama surrounding O.J. Simpson in the first line of their obituary because of the notoriety they gained at the time. So how does Edelman spin a story told countless times from countless different perspectives into something that feels wholly new, fresh, original and even somehow timely? Movie magic.
Each of the five parts of the film covers a different point in the chronology, which traces O.J.’s childhood through his current prison sentence. As the backdrop to this, Los Angeles and America are changing. Racial politics are growing more complex. Policing is evolving in ways that complicate the events that take place later. And like a season of The Wire, Edelman patiently guides the audience through these intersections in a way that makes it clear at every turn that he knows exactly where the story is going.
Part I creates a compelling narrative that shows O.J. as a raceless figure. Desiring not to be viewed as “Black,” O.J. shied away from many of the civil rights fights other famous Black athletes were engaging in at that time. And that reluctance makes his murder trial arc all the more fascinating as he becomes a focal point for the justified suspicions surrounding policing in the Black community. O.J. becomes the face of the Black man in the justice system—a system we know wrongs Black men time after time. This time, however, justice failed in the other direction through a combination of fame, money and some of those same rightful suspicions that were becoming more widespread. Put simply, O.J. was acquitted of killing his white wife because he was cloaked in an underserved shroud of racial injustice and oppression by very expensive and very skilled lawyers who knew how to create a fictionalized character that would appeal to the Black members of their jury.
As stated earlier, others have told this story before, but never before has it been so thoroughly connected to such a long view of the racial arc in this country. It traverses so easily between O.J. and Los Angeles and America. It melds archival footage with original interviews. It succinctly presents the entire universe surrounding the trial and all of the characters and events needed to track that story. At bottom, it shows us why the story of O.J. Simpson is the story of O.J., and us.
That Edelman set out to do this in the first place is admirable. That he achieved his goal is impressive. That he was able to turn nearly 8 hours of film into something that felt like a fast-paced thriller is a challenge to what I thought was previously possible within the medium. Many have called into question whether this is truly a film because it aired in segments on television. And while such questions are fair, the way the pieces so seamlessly fit together can leave no doubt—this is the best achievement in film in the last several years. When so many things have been said and written about O.J. over the years, it was hard to imagine something feeling like the last word. This clearly does.
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