Move over Making a Murderer – ‘O.J.: Made in America’ is the documentary of the decade
With a current rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and 96% on Metacritic, it wouldn’t be terribly audacious of me to assert that ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America is the best factual film of the 21st century so far. Having devoured the first two instalments of this five-part feature at its London premiere last week, where director Ezra Edelman later fielded questions from the press, I proceeded to polish off the remaining hours of the programme in under a day. It is with equal ardour that I convey to you just how brilliantly powerful, unflinching, intelligent and substantive O.J.: Made in America is.
What makes this documentary so compelling is the remarkable scope of its ambition. Unlike Netflix’s Making a Murderer, or This American Life’s hugely popular podcast Serial, Edelman’s film ventures far further than the injustice confronting a purportedly wronged individual. Looking at how the wider social injustices of racial inequality, domestic violence, and even celebrity culture played into the hugely controversial outcome of a hugely controversial murder trial, this film’s many jigsaw pieces gradually come together to create a comprehensive picture of a time, a place, a public feeling, and a very complicated individual. As its title suggests, this is so much more than a film about one man. It’s also so much more than a sports documentary, and it’s incredibly heartening to see such an in-depth and sensitive discussion about issues such as domestic violence being broadcast to the largely male audience of a sports channel.
Illustrating how the particular interests of Edelman’s film are woven together, part one opens by charting the rise of a high school football hero – arguably the best that America had ever seen to that point – who also happened to be black at a time of great civil unrest. It’s long before any mention of the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, as we take our time receiving a well-rounded character study of the man at the centre of it all: a man who was charismatic, handsome, ambitious, a smooth talker, and perhaps most importantly, completely aloof from the 1960s black power movement which surrounded him, and which continuously implored him to lend his support. Those of us too young to know of O.J. Simpson before the life of scandal and speculation will find ourselves moved by just what an incredible athlete this man once was. “He wanted to be a great American hero”, a school friend recalls, loaded with dramatic irony. Yet we also learn how O.J. chose to divorce himself from his race and roots through his entire career; the facets of his identity that he would ultimately exploit to get away with murder.
Without the crutch of narration, the documentary conveys its nuanced argument via archival footage and first-person interviews alone. The stories told by O.J. Simpson’s closest friends, members of the LAPD, jurors in the murder trial, the families of victims Brown and Goldman, or even just interested bystanders, are left to speak for themselves, setting O.J.: Made in America apart from most documentaries by its incredible balance. With music and the occasional juxtaposition of images as his only real guiding techniques, the director takes special care not hammer a personal agenda down our throats.
As Edelman told me in London last week, he was approached with the idea of an O.J. documentary, rather than it being any personal passion project. He also revealed that he sat for up to six hours with each interviewee, regardless of whether he sided with their point of view or otherwise. “I wanted to make sure that they got their say; that they said their piece, and that every time I sat down with someone, they weren’t sitting across from someone who already clearly has an agenda”, he said.
This is what makes O.J.: Made in America such a great work of art as a documentary. Using the extraordinary case of O.J. Simpson, his background, his motivations, and his interactions with those around him, we see how this highly televised celebrity trial both reflected and contributed to an extremely divisive period in American history. Perhaps most crucially, the ‘historic’ images we see of racially motivated police brutality from the 1960s – 1990s, or the polaroids of a desperately vulnerable Nicole Brown’s battered face, are so visceral, and so current, that we can’t help but be confronted by the lack of positive change in these areas over so many decades. The atmosphere of its context feeling so familiar, an historical incident is thrown into the present, forcing us to question not only how people today can still defend Simpson’s innocence, but for how long we’ll let these abuses of justice continue.
Ezra Edelman’s deftly directed and expertly edited exploration of O.J. Simpson’s rise and fall from grace will have you enthralled for every minute of its eight hour duration. O.J.: Made in America begins on Monday July 11th at 9pm, and continues at the same time every night until Friday July 15th, only on BT Sport.
Want more? Listen to our podcast discussion of O.J.: Made in America here.