Friday, July 15, 2016

O.J.: Made In America [film review]

Premiered on ABC on June 11th

I’m usually not on board with the entertainment industry’s predictable habit of milking the hell out of the latest hot trends. One bandwagon I’m certainly not adverse to Hollywood hopping on, however, is the current trend of TV-based long-form true crime documentaries. In the past couple of years, this format has been responsible for some of the best documentary filmmaking I’ve ever seen with Netflix’s Making A Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx. Now comes O.J.: Made In America from ESPN Films, as part of their ongoing 30 for 30 documentary series.

The prospect of revisiting a much-scrutinized crime and the central celebrity figure involved likely holds zero appeal to many in their mid 30s or older who experienced the O.J. saga the first time around. O.J. fatigue is further exacerbated by Fox’s dramatic miniseries The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story from earlier this year (I only lasted about 30 minutes into the first episode before bailing out on the cheesy trashfest). One would expect that O.J.: Made In America’s daunting seven hour and 44 minute running time will be another major impediment to securing an audience in large numbers. Ignore all of these potential obstacles, however, because O.J.: Made In America is an absolutely brilliant piece of documentary filmmaking.

The five-part documentary miniseries from director/producer Ezra Edelman surely has to now be considered the definitive word on Simpson’s spectacularly bizarre life story. Edelman explores Simpson’s life from his youth right through to his current incarceration for the dumbfounding 2007 bungled armed robbery in Las Vegas of what Simpson thought was football memorabilia stolen from him. A large number of Simpson’s business colleagues, friends, family members, and acquaintances are interviewed, although Simpson himself declined to participate in the documentary. 

What’s fascinating, though, is how Edelman weaves so many other compelling narratives into his epic piece. Race, expectedly, is at the forefront, both in terms of the Los Angeles Police Department’s strained relationship with the black community and how much of a role that race played in Simpson’s murder trial. The doc also offers insightful examinations of the perplexing American criminal justice system, celebrity culture, as well as the commercialization and decline of the media and journalism.

Two of the documentary’s five parts spend their entirety on the murders of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, Simpson’s arrest and the infamous Bronco chase, and his 1994-1995 murder trial. Many of the central figures in the case are interviewed, including Marcia Clark and District Attorney Gil Garcetti from the prosecuting side and F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck and the slime-oozing Carl E. Douglas from Simpson’s defence team. Douglas takes a little too much delight in recalling how prior to a visit to Simpson’s house by the jury, photos and other artwork there were rearranged and changed to make it look like Simpson had more relationships with black friends and family members (Simpson actually spent far more time in the “white world”). 

The trial is deconstructed in absolutely engrossing detail, with fresh revelations and analysis that even the most devout followers of the “trial of the century” will be surprised by. The prosecution’s mishandling of the case gets plenty of attention, from their misguided use of racist cop Mark Fuhrman to their disastrous strategy of having Simpson try on the gloves used in the murders (it’s revealed that Simpson helped swing the optics of that moment in his favour by not taking his arthritis medication, which likely played a role in the gloves not fitting). A handful of the jurors are interviewed as well and they offer some jaw-dropping comments that certainly shed more light on the trial’s unexpected verdict.

It’s a testament to the filmmaking team’s talents that the absence of any active involvement from the main subject of O.J.: Made In America doesn’t diminish its impact. Having almost eight hours to tell your story can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the filmmaker. Luckily, Edelman’s vision serves the sprawling running time of his well-paced documentary exceptionally well. Frankly, it’s astounding that there’s virtually no fat on the (oversized) bones here – even the outstanding Making A Murderer ended up flagging somewhat in its second-last episode before righting itself. O.J.: Made In America is actually so much more than just a compelling true crime story and should be essential viewing for documentary fans.

Rating: A+

Related posts: reviews of previous entries in the 30 for 30 series, including my October 2009 review of Kings Ransom and my October 2012 review of 9.79*