Film Review – OJ: Made In America (2016)

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The story of OJ Simpson is arguably one of the most infamous cases of the American Dream gone horrifically wrong.
For a long time, Simpson was one of the most beloved figures in America, beginning his career as a star player on the College football front before carving a career as one of the greatest and most popular players in the history of the NFL, following his sporting success by embarking on a semi-successful career as an actor and sports pundit.

However, his reputation would be forever tarnished by his now infamous murder trial in which he stood accused of brutally killing his ex-wife, a trial that as it progressed was much more than the trial of a man accused of a crime, with it exposing the true divide between Americans along racial lines.

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ezra Elderman uses the spectacular rise and tragic fall of Simpson to examine two controversial and hotly debated topics in modern America, that of celebrity and race in his acclaimed Oscar-winning OJ: Made in America, creating a truly spectacular piece of documentary filmmaking in the process.

The film charts the life and career of OJ Simpson from his beginnings as a star football player, through to his infamous trial in which he was accused and cleared of murdering his wife and her friend, before ending with his eventual arrest and imprisonment for kidnapping in 2008. In examining the life of Simpson, the film offers a larger examination of Los Angeles, the city in which he lived, the volatile, often violent, relationship between LAPD and the African American community, as well as the larger struggle of African Americans for equality in general, a struggle to which Simpson seemingly had no interest in until his arrest in 1994.

The film is exhaustive in its research and presentation, with Elderman telling a truly epic story of race and celebrity using OJ Simpson as the crucial link between the two topics.

The film makes use of dozens of interviews with people from across the life of Simpson, from his childhood friends to his former college friends and football teammates, to his former defence lawyers and the prosecutors at his murder trial.

All these interview subjects serve to illuminate the many sides of Simpson as well as the impressions that people had on him, with them also serving to illuminate his apparent disregard for his racial identity, consistently regarding himself not as an African American but instead merely identifying himself as OJ, a man seemingly without race.

The interviews with the attorneys and jurors from Simpsons murder trial offer some truly startling insights into the controversy surrounding it, with prosecutor Marcia Clark being scathing in her criticism of OJ’s defence team for manipulating the trial into one about race rather than a murder, with the interviews with two African American jurors essentially admitting that their decision to find Simpson not guilty of murder were largely motivated by racial issues being a particularly shocking revelation.

While Simpson himself is not interviewed in the film, Elderman makes up for this absence by using every piece of footage of Simpson available, from his early career as a college football star, to his current life in prison, with a particularly tragic interview conducted during a parole board hearing, where he expresses frustration at having to talk about his 1994 arrest for murder, with the clip also highlighting just how far behind him his glory days truly are.

It would have been very easy for the series to simply leap right into Simpson’s notorious arrest and trial for the murder of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, after all, that’s what most other documentaries would have done.

However, Elderman in a clever move often shifts the focus away from Simpson, almost entirely for large portions, in order to focus on the larger story of the volatile story of race relations in America, specifically in the city of Los Angeles, such as the hostile relationship between the LAPD and the cities large African American community.

By looking at the story in this way, such as looking at the infamous Rodney King incident that would eventually lead to violent riots in 1992, Elderman is able to paint a picture of the tinderbox of tensions that the city had become by the time of Simpsons arrest and trial, thus making the trial seem not like a murder trial, but more a trial of the city itself.

The presentation of the trial itself is perhaps the most exhaustive one to date, with it covering nearly all aspects of its build-up and aftermath, from offering insightful profiles of the key member’s defence team assembled by Simpson, to even offering a brief insight into how the jury was assembled.

The series does follow the well-worn path of discussing how the trial became something of a TV event, and of how this constant media coverage served to widen the racial divides in America regarding Simpson’s guilt, with white people largely believing him to be guilty, with African Americans largely feeling the opposite.

This is a very long documentary clocking in at an eye-watering 467 minutes, but the lengthy runtime is both a necessity and an aid to the story, as it truly allows the viewer to dive deep into the world of OJ Simpson and shows us that his story is much more than even he could have possibly imagined.

OJ: Made in America is not only one of the best documentaries’ of the last year, but it’s quite possibly one of the best documentaries of the decade. My review does not do justice in describing its brilliance so I implore you all reading to just clear yourself a weekend and immerse yourself in it.

[rating=5] | Graeme Robertson

Documentary, Sports, Crime | USA, 2016 | 18 | 17th April 2017(UK)| Dogwoof | Dir.Ezra Edelman | O.J Simpson | Buy:O.J.: Made in America [DVD]