A year ago, I found myself unexpectedly drawn into watching the first season of American Crime Story, which dramatised the story of the 1994-5 OJ Simpson trial. While I didn’t specifically follow the original case at the time, it was impossible not to be aware of the key points given the saturation coverage of it in the media at the time. Much of what was shown in Ryan Murphy’s The People vs OJ Simpson turned out to be remarkably familiar to me, and I was surprised by quite how many details I had retained.
The advantage of a dramatisation is that it can take you behind closed doors where cameras were never allowed at the time; and it is also able to shape the narrative into a more understandable format to make the events easier for the layperson to understand compared to the miasma of contemporary news reports and frenzied speculation. That said, a dramatisation does leave you wondering just how much or what we see and hear has been invented, however well-meaningly. You’re left wondering about some of the performances and some of the weird wardrobe and make-up decisions, such as why David Schwimmer is made up as a Word of Sport Dickie Davies lookalike, and why they cast such a bad actor in the role of OJ’s live-in friend Kato Kaelin. That’s because we’re far more critical of the authenticity of a drama in ways that we would never question live television news footage, which confirms that Bob Kardashian really did have a ‘skunk stripe’, and that Kato actually was that weird and the actor totally nailed the portrayal after all.
Even so, much as I liked The People vs OJ Simpson, after ten episodes of OJ drama I had absolutely no appetite to seek out another seven and a half hours of viewing on the subject, factual or otherwise. But then ESPN’s epic OJ: Made In America won the Best Documentary Academy Award in February, and I heard such good things about it that I felt an itch that needed to be scratched – maybe not least because having seen the dramatised version, I now wanted to see how reality measured up.
Actually, that’s a silly question: the OJ story is not reality. Not as you or I or the man or woman in the street understands it. It’s a tragedy of almost mythical proportions, and its intersection of sport, celebrity, crime, money, media and above all race is arguably the closest anyone will get to writing the Great American Story of the 20th Century. It has moments that you simply couldn’t get away with in fiction because no one would believe it in a million years; even today, seeing the slow motion white Bronco chase on the streets of Los Angeles defies comprehension that it had actually ever have actually happened in the first place.
All that memorable footage is to be found in the exhaustive OJ: Made In America which was produced and directed by Ezra Edelman. But it takes a very long time to get there: unlike the dramatised version, the film pulls a long way back and actually spends the first three hours chronicling Simpson’s early life in a poor area of LA, his first sporting successes at USC and his subsequent glittering career in US football. I confess that despite having retained a lot about the OJ trial itself I had very little knowledge about who Simpson was as a person before the murders; he was just “some retired famous American sports guy” and occasional mediocre actor in films like The Towering Inferno, Capricorn One and The Naked Gun. I had no idea of how his iconic status had transcended the sport and permeated American society, to the point where the cops didn’t think for a minute that he would flee arrest because there was literally no where in the world that someone as famous as him could possibly hide. What’s especially upsetting about footage from these early years is how genuinely nice and charming Simpson is: you can completely understand why people fell in love with him and wanted to be his friend. Even today looking back it’s hard not to feel the same, which makes the later years of documented spousal abuse and the manifestation of a narcissistic and likely sociopathic personality feel all the more shocking. It’s a personal betrayal of everyone who ever believed in him – felt even by us, watching this mammoth documentary feature, no matter how disconnected or impartial we might feel starting off.
Even more importantly, the first section of OJ: Made In America also contains a detailed history of race relations in LA starting in the 50s and 60s. It’s a fascinating study – there’s enough material here to make an absorbing stand-alone two-hour film on the subject all of its own. To see some of the violent abuses of power by the LAPD against black citizens over the decades is jaw-droppingly awful; and time and again you see the legal system utterly fail to step in to put things right, indeed it even compounds the injustices. It’s even more depressing when you see echoes of those controversies still resonating through to modern days across the United States with too many black people being shot dead by citizens and police who are then not prosecuted. Once you’ve seen what the black community went through with the Watts riots in the 60s, the Eula Love case in 1979, and of course the beating of Rodney King which led to city-wide riots in 1992, you can just begin to understand the state of rage and simmering civil unrest that was percolating at the time of the murders
After an intermission, the second three-hour section of OJ: Made In America covers the murder case from the very moment the police receive an emergency call about two bodies found at a house on Bundy Drive in the wealthy west LA district. One of them is OJ Simpson’s estranged ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and the other is Ron Goldman, a restaurant waiter running an simple errand. The evidence appears utterly overwhelming and Simpson is duly arrested after the bizarre, legendary Bronco chase. However the film is even-handed in its presentation of the ensuing trial and details the mistakes made on the prosecution side – the sloppy forensic process; the involvement of the notorious detective Mark Fuhrman; junior prosecutor Christopher Darden’s disastrous decision to have Simpson try on blood-splattered gloves found at the crime scene only to find that they don’t fit – and ultimately we arrive at the closing arguments. Defence attorney Johnny Cochrane speaks eloquently and invokes Adolf Hitler as he accuses the LAPD of a conspiracy against the black community itself; lead prosecutor Marcia Clarke looks already beaten as she gives a wooden address that seems to tell the jurors “You’ve seen the evidence, surely you’re not so stupid?”
Cochrane passed away in 2006 and is seen here only in archive footage, but Clark (looking completely different from the 1990s) is one of dozens of people associated with the case who have been newly interviewed for the film. Her strength of feeling and her anger about what happened is still visceral. Also giving his thoughts is former LA attorney general Gil Garcetti, but unfortunately – although understandably – Darden declined to participate. As well as Simpson’s friends and associates, his attorneys talk about their own roles in the case: F Lee Bailey is bullish and utterly unapologetic, while DNA expert Barry Scheck stands by what they did but looks more conflicted about what happened.
Cochrane’s protégé Carl E Douglas continues to believe that what they did was a huge and historic victory for the black community. He is gleeful as he recalls how they told Simpson to stop taking anti-arthritis medication so that his hands will swell up before the “if they don’t fit, you must acquit” coup de théâtre. He is entirely untroubled by the fact that “Simpson didn’t deserve it”, seeing it purely as an opportunity to get back at the white legal system in the US. The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman appear to be utterly incidental to him, of no concern compared to the greater good. That attitude should – and will – turn your stomach, and yet you can nonetheless understand (albeit unwillingly) the point of view, thanks to how diligently the film has detailed the history of injustices perpetrated against the black community.
The final section of the film details the verdict and the reaction to it – the jubilation of the black community, the shock of the whites who for perhaps the first time have to face the appalling truth about the fallible, corrupted US justice system. There are interviews with two of the jurors, one of whom says quite openly that the verdict was in large part payback for the acquittal of the LAPD officers involved in the Rodney King beating. The irony that until this time Simpson himself had never seen himself as a part of the black community let alone been remotely interested in civil rights hangs heavy. The jury took just three and a half hours to arrive at its verdict after 266 days of testimony and evidence, and while that looks on the face of it an appalling dereliction of duty by the jurors it’s easier to understand when you realise that they had been sequestered in a hotel for that entire time, unable to go home to their families. Once they got to deliver their verdict it was like they were being freed from jail, so who can blame them for wanting to get it over and done with as soon as possible?
The film doesn’t stop there. The final hour and a half details what happened to Simpson after the acquittal, with video footage of his evidence to the civil proceedings that ultimately found Simpson responsible for the killings to the amount of $33 million payable to the Brown and Goldman families. That leaves Simpson increasingly destitute, losing his home in Brentwood, while also a pariah in the very sections of wealthy white society through which he once moved so effortlessly. Seeking to maintain his fame and adulation he sinks into some truly decadent company and behaviour. Ultimately he is arrested for a bizarre incident in which he and a group of armed friends stormed a hotel room in Las Vegas seeking to recover some valuable merchandise that Simpson claimed legally belonged to him.
It’s the kind of silly, sleazy incident that would normally get someone five years in prison. But in this case, in 2008 Simpson was handed a compounded 33-year sentence in a Nevada penitentiary – coincidentally, one year for each million dollars awarded in the civil proceedings. He is eligible for parole in six months time in October 2017. Instinctively this feels out of all proportion: it is, as one contributor points out, a case of the US legal system finally getting its revenge on the man they believe got away with murder by playing the race card. Only this time, there was no Johnny Cochrane or Bob Shapiro or F Lee Bailey to get Simpson out of his predicament, because his star had long since plummeted to earth. If there’s a true lesson to learn about the US legal system it’s that money rather than race is the ultimate deciding factor in whether you’re guilty or innocent.
All of these subtle, complex themes are incredibly well handled by the director. The use of a huge archive of news and television footage coupled with new interviews telling the story without the use of any voiceover narration and only a few captions is reminiscent of the brilliant documentary Senna and is just as powerful and effective. It makes for an measured, intelligent, unforgettable and frankly unmissable watch of one of the most compelling stories of our times. A word of warning through – this is an 18 certificate film, and with good reason. While the language is very strong, it’s the inclusion of crime scene photos that frankly earn the rating all by themselves. They’re not used gratuitously, and they’re only on screen for a few seconds, but they are gruesomely graphic and beyond anything you’ve seen in anything other than the most hard core schlock horror – only, this is no triumph of special effects make-up but the real thing. It’s utterly sickening. Should the pictures have been included? Maybe not; but without seeing them it’s impossible to really understand the true savagery of the crime perpetrated on the night of June 12, 1994. That the killer then walked away and left the bloody corpses lying where Nicole and OJ’s two young children sleeping upstairs could easily have walked out and found them is just another gut-wrenching dimension to the crime that had never occurred to me before watching OJ: Made In America.
At the time, the OJ case was called ‘the trial of the century’. I thought that was just the usual hyperbole of the moment and that it would quickly fade into history as just one in a never-ending line of momentarily sensational events that end up as little more than a footnote. But an outstanding documentary like this makes you realise that this truly was something very different, something that says so much about its place and time in history and which prefigured so much of what was to come to pass over the succeeding decades that it can’t and surely never will be consigned to the margins.
If you have any doubts, then watch this film. You’ll need a strong stomach to be sure, and you might come into it with some scepticism, but after ten minutes you’ll know you’re watching something important. After 20 minutes, you’ll be transfixed. And after seven and a half hours you’ll look up bleary-eyed and blinking at the end of the credits, having seen the ultimate cautionary tale of our age – of the American dream that turned into everyone’s worst nightmare.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
OJ: Made in America is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK. It includes an hour of extras – a 43-minute interview with Simpson some years after his acquittal, and a 20-minute ESPN sports show recorded days after the murders and the Bronco chase. The film has also been shown on the BT Sport/ESPN digital channel, and will be aired on BBC Four over consecutive nights starting on Sunday May 14 at 10pm.
Coincidentally, The People vs OJ Simpson starts a late-night rerun tonight (Wednesday May 3, 2017) on BBC Two on successive evenings after midnight, which means that it will be available to catch up on iPlayer afterwards.