O.J.: Made in America might be the most essential TV series of the year.
The five-part ESPN documentary is a rich, dense examination of more than 50 years of American culture, one that uses the O.J. Simpson murder trial as a way to look at race and gender and class.
If that sounds a little like The People vs. O.J. Simpson, FX's dynamite fictional miniseries about the trial from earlier in the year, well, that's unavoidable. But it’s amazing how well the two projects complement each other, almost as if you couldn't get the full picture without watching both — even though they were produced completely independently.
Where People vs. O.J. focuses on the personalities involved in the trial and makes O.J. a cipher, Made in America turns the trial into just a smaller part of its overall tapestry. (Indeed, the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman and Simpson’s subsequent trial fill just two of the documentary's five episodes.) It's focused on context and on Simpson himself, on the nation that could build up such a figure and then tear him down.
It's also big and sprawling, and it embraces all the contradictions inherent in its story, finding ways to navigate them while simultaneously forcing you to confront how they reflect the deeply unjust core problems of American society. It's patient, with a brilliant eye for how to use talking head interviews and archival footage to tell a larger story. And right in the center is an argument that might make you a little queasy, thanks to how Made in America forces you to keep turning it over and over in your head.
Made in America impresses with the audaciousness of its arguments
Director Ezra Edelman advances three separate ideas in Made in America that dovetail masterfully in the final installment, which opens with Simpson being found not guilty of murder, then functions as a long coda on the aftermath of that massive trial.
The first idea is that Simpson almost certainly killed Brown and Goldman. The miniseries entertains no other theories or notions, and it lays out with devastating precision just how Simpson likely committed the murders and how he left behind tons of evidence to tie himself to the scene of the crime.
It's also as frustrated as many observers are that nobody in 1995 seemed to pay much heed to the idea that domestic violence can often presage murder (though the trial raised the profile of that argument).
The second idea is that even though Simpson was probably guilty, his acquittal was a triumph for American racial relations, because it forced a difficult national conversation about how police departments treated black citizens differently than white citizens.
That conversation continues (albeit often ineffectively) to this day, but the footage Edelman digs up to chronicle how black and white Americans reacted so differently to the verdict reveals why such discourse was so necessary, by suggesting that even if O.J. was guilty, being acquitted was a kind of minor karmic flip side of all the times innocent black men went to prison because of the criminal justice system railroading them.
And the third idea is that, ultimately, O.J. was unworthy of that honor (or burden, as it might be). Rather than stepping back into society as a model citizen, he was eventually convicted and sent to jail for armed robbery. He saw a world where many already believed he was a criminal and essentially decided to prove them right. The final half-hour of Made in America is deeply sad, not because of O.J. but because of what might have been.
These three ideas intertwine and depart from each other numerous times throughout the documentary's eight hours. (Each of its five parts is between 90 and 100 minutes long.) But Edelman is always ready to dive even deeper when some new topic arises. If he mentions USC football, you'd better believe there will be five minutes on the psychic importance of USC football to the Greater Los Angeles Area, right alongside longer glimpses into the racist culture of the LAPD.
Made in America embraces the contradictions within O.J. and the country he lives in
But what really makes the documentary work is the way it chooses to portray Simpson. FX’s The People vs. O.J. saw the man almost as a Rorschach test, as someone you could project almost anything onto. Made in America starts with that same basic idea, then suggests Simpson works as a Rorschach test because he really was all of the things people projected onto him: celebrity charmer, ladies’ man, enormously gifted athlete, murderous criminal.
The result is that Made in America occasionally plays like a cable antihero drama, with Simpson seeming as if he's torn between his basest impulses and his better angels, until the former ultimately wins out. That’s what allows Edelman to earn the tragedy of its final moments. Simpson might have been a better man, but he wasn't. And even when he was given the enormously unlikely opportunity to improve his public image, he mostly tanked it in favor of having a good time.
If I’m making it sound like the documentary is too sympathetic to Simpson, it's not, really. It's interested in him as a case study for America as a whole, someone who embraces all of his worst and best selves. Simpson famously said, at one time, "I'm not black; I'm O.J.," and Edelman returns to that idea again and again. Can someone "transcend" race? Not really, even at the height of their celebrity. Simpson tried, and the contradictions ate him alive.
In the end, Made in America is almost disgusted by Simpson, not just because he probably committed two murders but because he also didn't do anything with the immense fame he was granted before those murders, or the unique opportunity afforded to him after acquittal. No, he didn't have to be a spokesperson for his race or anything like that, but Made in America understands that simply by existing as a black man in America, Simpson was a spokesperson anyway, no matter how he ran from it.
It works, because the series juxtaposes footage of his early days, running the football at USC, with the brutal crime scene photos of Brown and Goldman's bodies. Could one man simultaneously embody such grace and such brutality? Sure. Just look at the country he grew up in.
O.J.: Made in America debuts Saturday, June 11, at 9 pm Eastern on ABC. Subsequent episodes (and repeats of previous ones) will air on ESPN, with the following four parts debuting at 9 pm Eastern on June 14, 15, 17, and 18.