As an Irish girl with no interest in sport of any kind I had never heard of OJ Simpson until 1995, but on holiday on the west coast that summer it was a conversation that was impossible to avoid. I watched American Crime Story earlier this year, the dramatisation of the trial starring Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Cuba Gooding Junior. While the performances were excellent I found the pace very slow. When I read early reports of the documentary miniseries OJ Simpson: Made In America I knew it was much more up my street.
OJ Simpson: Made In America was broadcast by ESPN in June in five parts totalling eight hours. The first two and a half hours chronicle OJ’s glory years: football in USC in late 60s including what became known as ‘The Run’, a 1967 match against UCLA, his acting career and subsequent fame. Adored by the public and by his friends, he was charismatic, handsome, charming and funny: ‘everybody’s best friend.’
It was in his relationship with Nicole that his dark side surfaced. He met her in a nightclub when she was just eighteen. He was married but they started an affair, then OJ divorced his wife and married Nicole. True to form he continued having affairs yet he was incredibly jealous of Nicole, often becoming violent and verbally abusive. A couple of Nicole’s phone calls to 911 are played in the documentary and she is clearly terrified as OJ rages in the background.
In tandem with OJ’s story the documentary shows the history of black people in Los Angeles: Watt’s Riots, Rodney King, 1992 Los Angeles Riots, police brutality and racial profiling. It’s impossible to talk about OJ without seeing his trial in this wider context.
The murder is only covered in part three of the documentary. Despite extensive coverage of the police chase and the trial, the viewer still gets details not previously widely known. For example, his manager confirms that OJ quit taking his arthritis medication for two weeks during the trial so that when he tried on the gloves his knuckles were swollen and he couldn’t bend his hands. Halfway through the fourth episode, prosecution team member Bill Hodgman outlines exactly how he believes Simpson committed the murders and he paints a vivid and compelling picture.
The trial became about race and OJ became a symbol of civil rights injustice, when in fact he turned his back on the African-American community throughout his life. When he was asked to become an activist he refused, he married a white woman, he socialised with white people and lived in Brentwood, a predominantly white and very affluent suburb of LA. OJ often said, ‘I’m not black, I’m OJ’, believing that his celebrity transcended race.
The interesting thing is that when discussing the verdict both jury members and onlookers viewed his exoneration as payback for how black people were treated in America, ‘for Rodney King’. Almost nobody discusses his guilt or innocence, as if that was such a secondary issue it wasn’t worth mentioning. To this day no-one else has been tried for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. And OJ has on numerous occasions outright confessed or alluded to the fact that he did commit the murders.
The final part of the documentary focusses on OJ’s life after his criminal acquittal and the civil trial where Fred Goldman finally got his day in court when OJ was found guilty. It is a sleazy and sordid mess, involving drugs, alcohol, sex and bad rap music, and it culminated in his 2007 arrest for robbery in Las Vegas. Thirteen years to the day after he was acquitted for the double murder he was found guilty of robbery, then sentenced to thirty-three years in jail.
The documentary is comprehensive with interviews with all the key players during the trial including Marcia Clark, Mark Fuhrman, Carl E. Douglas, Gil Garcetti, Barry Scheck (now director of the Innocence Project), and family members Denise and Tanya Brown and Fred Goldman, as well as colleagues and friends of OJ’s.
As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of documentary filmmaking. OJ: Made in America is one of the best I have ever seen, a meticulously researched and riveting piece of investigative journalism which deserves a huge audience.