On June 11th, ESPN will air the first part of a nearly eight hour documentary film - OJ: MADE IN AMERICA - chronicling the meteoric rise and fall of OJ Simpson. If, after FX’s recent THE PEOPLE VERSUS OJ SIMPSON (not to mention a decade of media coverage in the 90’s) you’re asking, “What else is left to know?” of the famed football star turned (almost undeniably) murderer, you may be surprised that the answer is quite a bit. Director Ezra Edelman’s film, which drew unanimous praise after debuting at Sundance last January, is a haunting, Shakespearean-like tragedy that benefits from a decade of introspection. MADE IN AMERICA proves hindsight is 20/20, showing just how important a social epoch like Simpson’s rise and fall was, and how the ground laid before it made it all possible.
MADE IN AMERICA covers a lot of territory, starting at the very beginning. If you’re a sports fan, you’ll likely feel a mixture of relish and guilt as Edelman takes you through a highlights reel of some of Simpson’s greatest accomplishments on the field. For a moment, we almost forget we’re watching the doomed tale of a disgraced hero; these early segments focus exclusively on the origin story of a young African-American boy with a dream rising from the projects to super stardom. However, this isn’t mere nostalgia. The film offers revealing glimpses into Simpson’s youth: his egoism, his stealing of best friend AC Cowlings high school sweetheart and their marriage that followed, his self-loathing that haunted him as a result of having a homosexual father; all these foreshadow the darker elements that would later emerge in OJ’s private persona. Even childhood stories about OJ skirting the system in high school with his charm carry an air of melancholy. The bottom line conclusion from OJ’s peers: the guy knew how to charm his way into, and out of, just about anything.
The documentary takes a significant step back from Simpson’s life long enough to detail racial tension and the socio-economic state of America, namely Los Angeles in the 90’s. This segment may at first seem sprawling and less glamorous than moments devoted to OJ’s fame in both sports and Hollywood films, but it’s actually an important stepping-stone in his journey from hero to convict. Edelman spares no punches in detailing the impact of the savage beating of Rodney King, the unnecessary death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, and the LA riots themselves; the boiling point of racial tension in the 90’s. The images here can be gruesome, but they serve their purpose. Los Angeles, at the moment just before Nicole Simpson and Ron Brown were brutally slaughtered in her Brentwood home, was an unjust terrain, rife with corruption in the police force.
Surprising, then, how little OJ Simpson had to say about said climate. MADE IN AMERICA makes it abundantly clear that OJ, to his own admission, was only ever looking out for number one. Ignoring the requests from his peers to become a more pronounced activist for the African-American people, OJ preferred to carve only his own solo path forward. Interviews in the film make it very clear that OJ craved acceptance into the white affluent community of Brentwood as much as said community was willing to embrace the then sports hero - as long as he played by their rules. OJ may have ridden on the backs of black athletes like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Althea Gibson - who all paved the way for his ascension to the top - but the documentary and OJ himself, in numerous interviews, made it very clear that he had no interest in returning the favor. Fame, fortune, and a revolving door of women – OJ was a notorious womanizer – complete Edelman’s portrait of a childhood dreamer who’d become drunk on his own carefully constructed public persona.
Despite my own reticence to give OJ’s story any more attention than I feel he deserves, MADE IN AMERICA is an important time capsule of American history. It’s a haunting tale that sheds some light on an entire culture and will seemingly give the victim’s of OJ’s rampant ego their due in the documentary’s remaining hours. As of this writing, only parts one and two were made available to the press, yet you can see the ambition of the story Edelman wants to tell, which goes far beyond much of the tabloid fodder that dominated in the 90’s. Time offers perspective, and it’s clear now how important the story of OJ Simpson is. His ascension on the football field and acceptance by white people perhaps opened many doors for African-American athletes, but his story is a cautionary tale on the dangers of idol worship and untended personal insecurities allowed to run rampant.