Documentaries are some of the most under appreciated works of film out there. It’s not easy to take non-fiction subject matter, cram archival footage in, and jump between talking heads and make it is an engaging as any good thriller out there, but the best ones do just that. I’m not talking here about the ones with a charismatic guide to take us through what’s happening (like Super Size Me, Catfish or Fahrenheit 9/11), I’m specifically talking about those that let interviews and the events tell their own story (see Blackfish for one example). Today’s film is not only a record breaking, Oscar winning endeavour, it also tells the story of one of the biggest rise and falls in American history. This is OJ: Made in America.
We’ve all heard the name OJ Simpson, but do we all know who he is and what happened to him? OJ: Made in America details the the incredible rise and the even more spectacular fall of one of the most astonishing Americans to ever walk the planet. Following OJ from the ghettos of California, to the heights of the National Football League, to a prison jumpsuit in Nevada, the documentary clocks in at just under 8 hours but was sensibly separated into five meticulously structured parts. Focusing on his football career, his fame and fortune, his darker violent side, the trial of the century, and OJ’s life post trial respectively, the documentary breaks down the narrative of OJ’s life beyond the court room. Whilst other big players in popular culture are also focussing on the judicial phenomenon that was the trial (see American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson), OJ: Made in America paints a riveting bigger picture of racial injustice in the USA, of a harsh and violent LAPD, of the American justice system, and of our cultural obsession with celebrity status. It is more than a biopic, it is an analysis of a broken and divided society.
Where OJ: Made in America really achieves is in the way it builds information to culminate in the biggest impact. Talking heads of friends, family, locals, jurors, and police officers amongst others are introduced with little to no context. Mark Fuhrman in interview, for example, offers comments on the Rodney King riots and Nicole Brown’s abuse calls before the documentary reveals his involvement in the case as a racially abusive liar, but it also gives him the opportunity to defend himself. Information is revealed when it is important to the story that director Ezra Edelman is trying to tell, like he is presenting the case in court himself. He allows all sides to have their say on the case and on OJ and the racial divide in America in general. It creates constant drama, suspense, and intrigue and even eight hours in you will want to keep going and hear more.
Its more important for Edelman to tell the story of America than it is of OJ, thus the tagline for the feature: ‘Made in America’; that’s the real heart of the documentary. Whilst other documentaries on OJ have tried to critique the evidence or find alternative theories, Edelman explains how we ended up in that court room and how the country was so divided on the verdict. It’s painful to watch at times, refusing to shy away from the gruesome. It is the mark of a director who has something important to say. Whilst 13th made similar comments on the state of racial divide in America, OJ: Made in America isolates a specific example that the world is already aware of and bleeds every ounce of contextualising information it can out of it to drive home its point and focusing on such a renowned and particularly charming and popular figure in American culture adds to its appeal over the it’s more evangelical contemporaries.
OJ: Made in America taps into the true-crime zeitgeist of Making a Murder and Serial but it is shocking in a different way. This documentary isn’t just exploring a potential wrong verdict. It’s very real; the issues it presents are those that our world knows and experiences still. It is not an isolated incident. One part sport movie, one part rising star story, one part race documentary, and one part crime thriller, OJ: Made in America is a rollercoaster and it may be uncomfortable at points but you won’t want to get off.