On the day the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial was announced I was sitting in one of my high school classes. The normal flow of the lesson was disrupted when another black student, whose name I can no longer remember, exuberantly opened the class room door and said “did you hear? O.J. got off.” There was an almost unspoken sense of relief and joy amongst the few black students in the room. By that point what the media dubbed “The Trial of the Century” was no longer a murder trial. In our households, the often discussed televised court case had unfairly morphed into a heated commentary on racism in America. What stood out for me most though on that day, was the chilling look of horror and disgust on the faces of my predominantly white classmates.
I had never felt so uncomfortable amongst my friends and peers in my entire life.
Our once harmonious class, for the remainder of that particular day, sat silently divided along racial lines. As the years went by, and logic was allowed to enter the equation again, my view on the verdict changed, but the mental image of that day in class never left me. Those memories and emotions surrounding the trial came rushing back to me with the fury of a damn bursting as I watched Ezra Edelman’s marvelous documentary O.J.: Made in America.
Offering a scathing and expansive examination of longstanding racial tensions within America, Edelman presents a film that eloquently shows how the trial was much bigger than the individuals involved. Tapping into the historically turbulent relationship between the black community and the L.A.P.D., the film powerfully captures the systemic nature of injustice that is deeply woven into the fabric of Los Angeles. This not only helps the documentary to foreshadow the narrative of the trial, but also the way race ultimately impacted O.J Simpson himself, despite spending a good portion of his life doing everything he could to avoid such realities.
Edelman paints a compelling portrait of Simpson as a charismatic chameleon who felt more at home within the affluent, and predominantly white, circles rather than the community that ultimately supported him when he was on trial for murder. The phrase “if he was black…” frequently pops up in the film by those who knew him as if to say that Simpson’s celebrity status transcended race and, in the case of the domestic abuse, morality. Not that Simpson himself did much to refute such claims. He was too intoxicated by the power of fame to realize that it was all fleeting.
One of the wonderful things about O.J.: Made in America is that, regardless of whether you are well versed in Simpson’s life or not, the film offers plenty of revelations. This is quite an astounding feat considering how wildly publicized his life became once he was charged with murder. Edelman ensures, however, that his documentary never stoops to the circus level of sensationalism that plagued the criminal trial. Instead, through its unflinching graphic images of the murder victims, and the lengthy examples of racial violence, the documentary offers a tragic view of America; one where even the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas is turned into a deprived playground for those who have fallen from grace.
Similar to a hurricane uprooting all in its path, it is clear that Simpson’s life had painful reverberations for all who came in contact with him. Regardless of whether it was family member, friends, lawyers, journalist, jurors, or average fans of “The Juice,” the sense of tragedy can be seen on the faces of all involved. It could even be argued that the most tragic figure is Simpson himself. Despite the heinous acts committed, and the fallout that came from it, Edelman has an uncanny ability to, for brief moments, make us feel empathy for Simpson. However, the film never condones his actions, in fact it effectively points out what a ruthless monster he was.
One of the most engrossing and masterfully constructed films of this year, O.J.: Made in America is an important glimpse into a man who was so determined to live the American dream that he lost sight of himself and reality of the world he inhabited in the process.