OJ: Made in America

What is justice?

There is more than one city contained within Los Angeles. Alongside the Hollywood glamour - celebrities, California sunshine, mansions tucked like jewels into the leafy hillside - is a landscape marked by poverty and dispossession, by violence and police brutality. When China Mieville wrote in The City and The City of two cities that occupy the same physical urban environment, each consciously ‘unseen’ by residents of the other, he might have taken Los Angeles as his model. But when OJ Simpson arrived at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship in 1967, it might have looked from the outside as though the two cities were merging. A young black man comes to a quintessentially rich, white university (“It’s just like a resort!” his then-wife, Marguerite, told a journalist) and is welcomed with open arms. And this at a conservative school, where the students proudly isolated themselves from the social activism gripping other universities at the time. But the reactionary environment of USC was, in fact, perfectly suited to OJ, whose deliberate lack of political or racial consciousness distinguished him from other black athletes of the time. In those days, his response to the suggestion that he might embody an African-American identity was always simply to say, “I’m not black! I’m OJ!”

But when was OJ more than just OJ? This is the question at the heart of OJ: Made in America, the recent ESPN documentary presenting a fascinating look into the life of OJ Simpson, and the social stage on which his very personal dramas were played out. Over a five-part documentary that spans seven and a half hours in total, we follow OJ’s rise from the housing projects of San Francisco to the college football world, where he quickly became the nation’s biggest star. At the end of a successful pro football career, he made another fortune in celebrity endorsements, and appeared in several movies. While racial tensions in Los Angeles grew ever more pronounced, OJ’s personal success allowed him to largely escape his own blackness. But in 1994, the brutal double murder of OJ’s estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, marked the end of OJ’s ability to be ‘just OJ’. The crime - and the ensuing tabloid hysteria that surrounded OJ’s televised eight-month trial - sparked off a fiery national debate where no one, it seemed, could adopt a neutral position. The case prodded America’s sore spots on race, gender, class, police brutality, domestic violence, celebrity … The story is so huge, spanning across so many worlds and layers, that the film’s length quickly begins to seem appropriate, even necessary. It takes a deft filmmaker to bring all these elements into a cohesive story, and director Ezra Edelman proves himself more than worthy of the task.

Perhaps most importantly, Edelman skilfully extrapolates the issue of race from OJ’s individual case to Los Angeles’ urban history. Using original footage and commentary, the film continually probes the history of racially charged tension between the LAPD and the majority-black community of South Central Los Angeles. Particularly gripping is the history of the 1992 LA riots, which erupted following a ‘not guilty’ verdict in the Rodney King case (Rodney King was a black motorist tasered and brutally beaten by LAPD officers. The violence was caught on camera by a bystander). Footage from news cameras and helicopters - the latter, especially, bringing to life the dark tabloid glamour of the 1990s - captures a city overflowing with righteous anger. “No justice in America, not for the blacks!” one rioter tells the camera as the street behind him erupts into flames.

And so. After Rodney King (and of course, after Eric Garner and Michael Brown; after Tamar Rice and Freddie Gray) it’s hard not to feel sympathy with the thousands of African-Americans who crowd into the streets to declare their unwavering support for OJ while he stands trial for murder. It’s hard not to feel yourself on their side, at least a little bit, as they celebrate his ‘not guilty’ verdict as a single, rare instance of victory against a system set up to punish and brutalise them. “He’s a black man, and black men in America have a hard time getting justice,” one jubilant OJ supporter declares to a reporter following the verdict, joyful crowds flooding the street behind her. The fact that the verdict was almost certainly not what many of us understand to be ‘justice’ - that is, that the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to OJ’s guilt - is of little importance. For the black community, especially in Los Angeles, OJ’s trial represented a node within a network; a chance to rebalance a set of scales that had long been weighted against them. Even the fact that OJ himself had shied away from an African-American identity was, in the end, inconsequential - his blackness not so easy to shake off after all. “This was payback for Rodney King,” is an opinion explicitly voiced by several commentators, and confirmed by one of the jurors. For those viewers who, like me, began the documentary convinced of the absolute injustice of the OJ verdict, Made in America provides a sensitive and thought-provoking counterpoint: could we view the verdict as simply a different kind of justice?

But then: Nicole. Ron Goldman. Nicole’s two children who grew up without a mother. Unflinchingly, the documentary shows crime-scene photographs of the butchered bodies lying in pools of blood at the bottom of the staircase. Again and again, just as you begin to feel yourself sympathise with the story of OJ as a black American, the filmmakers jolt you back to the story of OJ as a domestic abuser and a (probable) murderer. The public/private divide that characterises domestic violence is on full display here, as OJ’s eminently charming outer shell - many women confess to liking him despite themselves, even after the murder - conceals what is clearly a menacing interior. The power comes from what isn’t shown - we never see him hit Nicole; never hear him speak a cruel word to her. All we see is the public OJ: charming and likeable, someone who you almost can’t help rooting for. This makes the photographs of Nicole’s bruised face - and, later, her bloodied body - especially jarring. But then the camera pans out again, so to speak, and we see LAPD officers laying their batons into a semi-conscious Rodney King and getting away with it. We see the impotent rage of a black community continually downtrodden and brutalised by a police force never held to account. The wonderful pathos of Made in America comes from the way it deftly toggles back and forth between this historical context and the very personal, brutal facts of the individual murders: a toggling that leaves the viewer always unsure of themselves, standing on continually shifting ground.

Although the filmmakers secured interviews with many people who occupied important positions in both OJ’s personal orbit and that of the trial, OJ himself is conspicuously absent from the narrative; a shadow that lurks forever just out of our reach. Compare this with the portrait of Kurt Cobain in last year’s award-winning Montage of Heck, a documentary so painfully intimate that the viewer almost felt as though Cobain himself had written and directed it. By contrast, Made in America spends seven and a half hours in pursuit of a character who never truly appears. However, as the documentary progresses, this elusiveness starts to feel more and more appropriate; we come to understand OJ as a person who wore a series of masks to interact with the world. Black hero, star footballer, transcender of race, seller of products, husband, lover, murderer: the task of Made in America is to examine these masks as masks, if not to peel them back entirely. In this, it does an admirable job. 

- Joanna Horton

Movie Details

Title: OJ: Made in America
Director: Ezra Edelman