Director: Ezra Edelman
This 8 hour examination of OJ Simpson – college football star, supreme athlete, hero, star, icon, killer, wife beater, narcissist, psychopath, liar and fool is not only a great documentary but a stunning piece of investigative journalism.
I first heard the name OJ Simpson when UK news showed footage of this slow police chase through LA and then told he was that guy with the tiny role in The Naked Gun. I did not know before watching this film (split into five 95 minute chunks for US TV) why he was so loved by the American public, of his sporting prowess and the easy going charm he had. This film helped fill in those blanks but also put him in the context of the times he was living through. Rather than support fellow athletes around the time of the infamous black power salute at the 68 Olympics he insisted “I’m not black, I’m OJ” with only a few miles but a whole cultural experience separating him from the Watts riots. He wanted to be a Muhammed Ali figure, someone who transcended sport and his colour.
The Nicole Brown Simpson & Ron Goldman murder scene surrounded by yellow tape only appears over 3 hours in but the events leading up to the attack are signposted all too clearly in 20/20 hindsight – Nicole returning from her first date with OJ, her jeans ripped because he was “forceful”, her “selfies” of her bruised face and body, his eavesdropping and stalking her when she was with other men after they split , the 911 calls and his furious jealousy. The void between the charismatic OJ the public knew and the private citizen.
The film is however more than an attempt to prove that OJ committed the murders or that there was a police conspiracy to make the charges stick. It puts the events into sharp focus – the beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of his police officer attackers, the subsequent riots, famous cases of killers of poor black men and women having been given lenient sentences, the burning resentment towards figures like LA police chief Darryl Gates. This was the environment that the OJ Simpson arrest, trial and acquittal played out in and perhaps why it went the way it did.
One of jurors interviewed says that his acquittal was “payback for Rodney King” and a civil rights activist said it gave white America a taste of what the blacks in the USA have gone through for hundreds of years. Many of hose who thought he was innocent from Day 1 said that his race had everything to do with it while some in the black community hated him for the fact of NIcole’s race. Even his subsequent jailing for a ridiculous and bungled attempt to take back some of the property he lost after the civil case was seen by many of all creeds as payback for avoiding jail for murders.
This film cuts to the heart of American society now and then. Black Lives Matter. The use of choke holds resulting in the deaths of suspects was a hot topic in the 1980s, it still is today. Racism within the law enforcement community, the court system and American society as a whole, it is traced and made evident that few things have changed.
The interviews are revealing and shed so much new light onto OJ as a man, father, husband and sports hero you can understand why people warmed to him. Yet you can appreciate the anger of Ronald Goldman’s father and his family as the trial is moulded by the defence to become a judgement on the LAPD, Mark Fuhrman and how the black community have been let down rather than two people brutally murdered. The possible events of the murders are described in reference to the pathologist autopsy reports in a clinical and detached way but with the use of graphic crime scene photos that are deeply shocking and drive home the brutality of the attack.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if you think he did it or not, its a warning from history – our obsession with celebrity culture began here (the birth of the Kardashian reality TV empire, the blurring of real life and drama with the televised trial – how witnesses like Kato Kaelin become overnight stars for their 15 minutes. OJ Simpson may not have much in common with much of black America that celebrated his acquittal but their dreams placed in him and his story are a vital part of that classic American dream. This film shows the nightmare and how it has been going on long before anyone had heard the name OJ Simpson and will live on longer than his infamy.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Hearing a story you thought you knew well but with extra chapters and at a pace which helps you see it in a whole new light. The series has aired on ESPN in the States and CTV in Canada. I’m sure a UK broadcaster has already snapped it up. Yes, its a long haul but I would certainly watch it again.