Written by Ahlam Atallah and Cheyenne Smith
The documentary OJ: Made in America directed by Ezra Edelman undertakes a massive case and tragic story of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman by the acquitted OJ Simpson, set in a backdrop of racial turmoil and with the added challenges of the media involvement due to the location of the murders, the celebrity status of the murderer, and the LAPD’s inability to exonerate themselves from the accusations of racism and police brutality aimed specifically at people of color, and more specifically those who suffer from poverty. Edelman and his team do a wonderful job of inserting as much footage of the actual news coverage of the incident, as well as the trial and after it. They interview a wide variety of people, ranging from friends and family of Nicole, friends and family of OJ, Goldman’s family, officers from the LAPD, the prosecutorial team, the defense, witnesses, civil rights leaders, religious leaders and more. The civil and social unrest of the time was also deeply explored and explained, including in depth coverage of what happened during the Rodney King trial, the shooting of Latasha Harlan, among other instances of unfair treatment of black people. Throughout they detail OJ’s rise to fame and his public persona, and how this affected the trial specifically. All this information and detail truly add to their ethos and pathos. They carefully add to the story until the viewer can experience it almost as though it were happening in real time. Edelman seems to have a policy of show and then tell, lulling the viewer into the events through building a solid foundation with ample proof.
The civil unrest mentioned above concerning the position of African Americans in Los Angeles and their dealings with the LAPD had a surprising amount to do with both the outcome of the trial, as well as the way it was covered at the time and how the defense were able to use the “race card” with a defendant who has repeatedly throughout his career stressed his lack of identification with race, citing his belief that he does not consider his color to be an obstacle or a factor in his dealings with the world, and more specifically white people. Edelman adds in past interviews in which OJ denies seeing race as a problem for him, as well as interviews with civil rights leaders both past and current who speak about how OJ and other black athletes and celebrities have an obligation to join the movement. This juxtaposition between how OJ viewed his position as a successful black man in society versus how the rest of the Black community viewed it outlined his worldview and Edelman’s choice of including this specific issue early on (Parts 1 and 2) sets the stage for the rest of the documentary’s commentaries on race in the trial.
The footage of Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD and the subsequent trial in which the cops involved in the beating were acquitted despite the video evidence available, may seem like superfluous information, unrelated to the case and story of OJ. However, Edelman is aware of the viewer and the probability of them needing more background information about the ongoing social turmoil in the early 90’s in the Los Angeles area specifically. The footage of the riots which ensued after the decision in the Rodney King trial interspersed with footage of police beating Black men and women, as well as a comment spoken by the infamous racist Mark Fuhrman, “I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get burning down your own community,” as we see videos of buildings on fire. Immediately preceding this is shots of and comments by some of the Black interviewees explaining how they empathized and felt the pain that brought these riots on. Edelman goes back and forth throughout the whole documentary between the viewpoint of black people and white people on what was going on and why, and it is enlightening to see two sides of the same story being told by people who grew up in what may as well be two different worlds because of the color of their skin. The emotional turmoil of this part is what truly drives home the director’s point; that the story seems like two different stories depending on who you ask and what part they may or may not have played.
The documentary explores another seemingly outside force which played a large role: the media. The media only added fuel to the fire as they covered the various aspects of both the social issues and the case itself. Repeatedly we hear the prosecution commenting on how allowing the media to reign unchecked in a criminal case involving a celebrity has caused many issues for them, yet what made the OJ case so different from other widely publicized cases? The amount of infotainment that was produced of the case was a first, as well as cameras present inside the courtroom. Footage of entertainment news networks alongside reputable news stations covering the same trial and the spins they put on it were an interesting addition to the documentary which essentially is another piece of the media that can be added to the ever-growing list concerning the OJ trial. Edelman’s interviewees stress how the trial became a “media circus,” a term we hear quite often. The looks of Clark were discussed just as much as the evidence presented, leaving the impression that the trial is now simply revolving around appearances; a fact OJ is aware of, as Clark adds he is good at smiling and putting on a face for the camera, which he immediately drops when he is no longer being watched. What is the purpose of discussing the media’s actions? It can be Edelman’s way of showing the viewer how media coverage plays an active role in our justice system as well as in the furthering and hinderance of social justice issues.
Race was included in the documentary in multiple different ways such as videos and images from the riots as previously mentioned, and also by the inclusion of different races and their views on OJ’s guilt or innocence. In part 4 of OJ: Made in America, Edelman includes an interesting series of media that switches back and forth from a primarily African-American group expressing OJ’s innocence to a primarily white group expressing his guilt. Both of which carried signs and participated in protests outside of the courthouse or in various parts of LA. The viewer is probably aware that this is not entirely representative of the truth but it helps drive home the hostile environment surrounding the case and the idea that racism was still (and is currently) a major issue being discussed and protested especially in LA. Edelman included juror testimonies that stated that the verdict was reached in part by the impact of the Rodney King case and its role in society. He strategically implemented these pieces of media to continue to remind the viewer throughout the documentary’s recount of events that race, whether or not the card should have been played, was and that this case made ripples in the fight for equality for years. His inclusion of the race riots and jurors’ comments on them were not only to compliment what impacted the case, but to also make sure that just like Nicole and Ron, the brave people that put their lives on the line to fight for justice and equality mattered too, and big players like Mark Fuhrman were the makers of victims.
One of the most famous moments of the OJ Simpson trials was when Chris Darden asked OJ to try on the killer’s gloves. This moment was talked about and dissected for years to come. In the OJ: Made in America documentary, the cover photo is a man (suspected to be OJ) wearing a leather glove painted with the design from the American flag. Not only does this chosen image by Edelman comment on OJ’s time as a football prodigy, but also his likely role as the killer aided by America’s role in acquitting him. This image presents a foreshadow to what the documentary focuses on, the fame of OJ that allowed him to walk as a free man. It can be understood to also comment on the “mask,” that is frequently discussed by friends and colleagues that OJ was known to put on for the cameras, especially the ones within the court room and his interviews just like the glove covers his true identity hidden within his fingerprints. Despite the controversy surrounding the glove and its possible dishonest origin, the cover photo sets an accurate tone to the documentary that is worth noting.
In comparison to other documentaries that show this double murder trial, OJ: Made in America offers a much-needed reminder that there were two human beings, two victims of violence that were at the heart of this trial, undeservingly put on the back burner. Edelman included a piece of Marcia’s statement in “Part 4” saying that children at home would be asking about “the forbidden “n” word…Nicole.” This statement really substantiates Edelman’s underscore that the victims in the case were drowned out from the beginning, being replaced with racial turmoil and a celebrity on trial. Edelman continues to try and add in pieces of the victims that were typically left out such as the gruesome crime scene photos that were seldom seen, and a lengthy description of the murders that is intended to leave the audience in emotional shock. This was extremely effective as other parts had included more of what the families experienced and their reaction to the verdict, but this description and the photos made it all real. Edelman’s commentary was strategically placed between scenes in order to provide maximum shock and to be confident the message was conveyed. It was almost impossible as the viewer to ignore what was being conveyed. Added to this gruesomeness we get the lengthy history of OJ’s domestic abuse towards Nicole, with pictures, diary entries and 911 calls to corroborate the story. The emotions of the viewer are weaved into the victim’s life, as well as her death.
Edelman’s desire to push the victims at the heart of the case rather than OJ did not stop with simply adding in necessary and personal details about Nicole and Ron’s family, but it was also portrayed in the way that OJ was shown. Part 1 shows OJ’s successes and his victories as an athlete and all-around celebrity almost setting the documentary up to be biased towards his innocence, but in part 2 there is a shift demonstrated by OJ’s friends’ testimonies. Edelman did a fantastic job including interviews from those closest to OJ and capturing statements that directly juxtapose what is being seen on screen. The viewer hears commentary about how OJ would cheat in golf but it would be virtually ignored because “he’s OJ,’ while watching him smile and be cheered on while golfing tournaments. Robin Greer stated that OJ was “insincere and entitled,” right after we watched scenes of him smiling for the cameras and seemingly warm and light hearted. These images further portray the idea of a double feature of a man. The inclusion of OJ and his two faces is meant to make the viewer question at what point do we decide celebrity status is not a get out of jail free card? And how can we continue to allow malicious beings to overshadow the victims they trampled?
OJ: Made in America directed by Ezra Edelman is rhetorically a rich piece that recounts the OJ Simpson case and its preset as well as conclusionary impact. The case made a large impact on the millions that followed it, and this documentary captures this well. The portrayal of the media’s influence, OJ’s rise and fall of fame, Ron and Nicole’s family and death, as well as the defense and prosecution were well done. The environment surrounding the case including the race riots and Rodney King was given in doses throughout the succession that were intended to make sure the viewer finished the series with no doubt that race was as big a player as Marcia Clark or Johnny Cochran. The victims were given justice in their screen time, as they should be and the documentary did its best to accurately portray everyone involved, leaving a sour taste in anyone’s mouth as they watch the corruption of justice that exists presently in the United States of America.