Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Movie Review: O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America
Directed by: Ezra Edelman.
Had you asked me at the beginning of 2016 if I had any interest in rehashing the O.J. Simpson case, my answer would have been no. I was 13 when he was arrested, and he was acquitted on my 14th Birthday. It is a case that has been endlessly discussed, written about ever since – I’ve seen countless docs (mostly TV ones), a previous miniseries (American Tragedy – with Ving Rhames as Johnnie Cochran – I remember liking it, but it was 16 years ago, and I don’t think I could tell you very much about it now), heard it discussed on some of my true crime podcasts, etc. Essentially, I was of the opinion that O.J. was guilty, he bought his way to freedom, and when he ended up in jail years later, for kidnapping and armed robbery (in a case that, quite frankly, I paid little to no attention to), I didn’t really care. For me, I – and the rest of the world – had already devoted far too much time to O.J. Simpson.
Fast forward to right now, and F.X.’s miniseries : The People vs. O.J. Simpson is the best season of dramatic television I have seen so far this year (and really, dating back a few years) – it is impeccably written, directed and acted, and really does add something new to the story. And then, even better, is Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America – his seven and half hour documentary about the man’s life, that is a landmark documentary in every way. When it comes to documentaries, I am of the opinion that there is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) – and then there is everything else. O.J.: Made in America joins that select group of documentaries right below Shoah – films like Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire (why the hell am I the only one who loves that film), Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line – and a few others. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
What the documentary does amazingly well is combine the epic and the intimate – scanning out to give what happened context that stretches back decades, and then zooming in on smaller details better than anyone else who has covered this case has. After watching the film, you may come to the opinion that no one who is involved in this case in anyway ends up coming across very good – they are either stupid, incompetent, greedy, craven, cowardly, violent, racist, liars, sleazy or some combination of the above. But, after watching the documentary, they are also human – and the film shows us them with their flaws. You won’t forget this film.
Like most people, I saw the film split up into five, two hour blocks on Broadcast TV, split over the course of a week (for parts 1, 4 and 5 – when I didn’t have work the next day, I actually watched them again, time shifted, at midnight as well). I would have loved to see it all in one sitting – but I realize why that isn’t really feasible (my wife, for example – who loved the doc – said that if I asked her to sit through it all at once, she would said no). The five parts do help in some ways though – and certainly does have a structure to it. The first part, is really everything before O.J. met Nicole Brown – she’s seen only in passing in the last few minutes of the segment. In many ways, this part plays like an American success story – as O.J., who grew up poor, ends up going to USC, where he becomes a football star, and wins the Heisman trophy before going pro – where he struggles for a few years in Buffalo, before a new coach emphasizes the running game, and builds the offense around him – where he ends up being one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. He also becomes a famous spokesperson – for Hertz among others – becoming one of the first African Americans to do so. Even as his football career is winding down, he begins an acting career – and starts to think his life post-NFL. In this segment, Edelman does a great job at placing O.J. in history – the USC stadium borders on Watts, which had just gone through the riots (which are detailed) right before O.J. started playing there. But unlike athletes like Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali, Simpson doesn’t use his fame to help advocate for black causes – quite the opposite really – he ignores them. He is quoted as saying “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” – which sounds bad, but at least you could defend on some level as arguing that he meant he wanted to be judged on his talent and who he was as a person, not the color of his skin. What’s indefensible is the story that is told right after, where he and a friend are at a wedding, and seated at a table only with other African Americans, and they overhear a white woman say “Look at O.J. over there with all those niggers” – and O.J. thinks it’s great – they don’t see O.J. like they do the “rest” of them. This is key to what made everything about O.J. such a huge story later on – he was “one of the good ones” as they say – the black man who made White America comfortable – who would along them to say they weren’t racist, because they loved O.J.
Part two is really about O.J. and Nicole’s relationship – right up to the time of the murder (again, it happens, in passing, in the closing moments) – but like the first part, it allows for transgressions to the world outside of O.J. – and much more detailed ones this time. O.J. meets and falls for Nicole – then a beautiful, 18 year old blonde, as he’s going through a divorce. He is trying to become an actor – but is struggling a little bit (he lost out on a part in Ragtime – that went to Howard E. Rollins Jr., who received an Oscar nomination for the role) – and really only excels in silly Naked Gun movies. He tries to become a football broadcaster as well – but he isn’t really good at that either. Meanwhile, he’s moved to Brentwood – the rich, mostly white enclave in L.A. – and surrounds himself with (mostly white) well-wishers and hangers-on. As the 1980s progress – and turn into the 1990s – the police are called more and more often to their house – because O.J. is beating the shit out of Nicole. No arrests are made, no police reports filed – the police loved O.J., and treat him with kid gloves. Meanwhile, L.A. is exploding with racial tension. Edelman shows, repeatedly and in detail, the video of Rodney King being beaten by four, white LAPD officers – and details how, eventually, they will be acquitted of any wrong doing. He also notes the case of Eulia Love – gunned down by LAPD officers in the 1970s, over an overdue gas bill – and the case of a young African American girl, shot in the back of the head, by a convenience store clerk over an argument – and the clerk who only got probation. Edelman is setting the stage for what is to come next – the O.J. verdict didn’t happen in a vacuum. If the African American community didn’t already have a healthy – and justified – skepticism that the LAPD and the justice system was stacked against them, would O.J. have been acquitted? Would so many be so quick to believe the conspiracy theory that Johnnie Cochran and the defense would lay out, centering on Mark Fuhrman and planted evidence?
It’s at this point, you realize that we’re more than three hours into the documentary (not including commercials) – and the murder hasn’t even happened yet. This speaks to how Edelman sees the case – that the murder and the trial are part of something bigger (it’s also the reason Edelman has said he didn’t initially want to make the film – which is probably why he approaches things in this way). Part three, therefore, is a challenge – because it’s here where Edelman has to start delving into the material that everyone already knows – and has an opinion on. It’s here where the infamous Bronco chase happens – and O.J.’s perhaps suicide note, where he implores people to remember him how he was, and not how he is now. And it is also starts documenting the trial – the jury selection, which heavily favors the defense (and how, the prosecution, even today, comes right up to the point of calling them uneducated and stupid, but does quite cross the line). Not all the lawyers involved are interviewed – Johnnie Cochran is dead, of course, and Christopher Darden – whose reputation was probably hurt the most by the trial isn’t here either. But listening to the likes of Marcia Clark, and especially Carl Douglas (of the defense team), really does provide fresh insight into the trial, and how it came out the way it did (Douglas’ story about staging O.J.’s house is a classic in itself).
The fourth segment basically takes us to the end of the trial – but before the verdict. Much like part 3, it really does offer new views on the same old material – concentrating on Mark Fuhrman for much of its runtime, who I wouldn’t say comes across sympathetically, although it’s not as hateful as you may think. It also spends quite a bit of time on the glove – and the disastrous decision by Darden for O.J. to try it on (if there’s a bombshell in this regard, it’s in O.J.’s agent, who says he told O.J. not to take his arthritis medication for a while before then – which made his joints ache, and his hands swell) – and it is also spends time with Cochran’s closing argument – in which he says the infamous “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” line – but also, ends up comparing Mark Fuhrman to Hitler. But this segment will be remembered for a 10 minute sequence, when one of the assistant D.A.’s walks us through the crime itself – something that, looking back, I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen done before. For a case this dissected and discussed, where I’ve heard the timeline of when O.J. got burgers with Kato, to when he got on the plane to Chicago, etc. a million times, I don’t think I’ve ever really heard the actual murders themselves discussed in any detail. What follows in that segment is sickening and disgusting – and Edelman doesn’t blink away from it for a second, showing some of the most graphic and bloody crime scene photos you could imagine – in particular one that shows Nicole’s neck after the murder that will stay in my mind forever. You won’t want to look at those photos – but they are necessary. Because no matter how much bigger a case this was, we have to remember that it all started because of two brutal, bloody murders – and if the media is going to turn this into entertainment, and we in the audience are going to lap it up, we have to reckon with what actually happened.
Part five in, some ways, the most interesting one. It starts with about 30 minutes on the verdict and the fall out – how the jury came back in just a few hours after 268 days of a trial, and how they found him not guilty. Edelman talks to two jurors – both African American women – one who insists that “90%” of the jury saw the verdict as payback for Rodney King, and one who says it had nothing to do with it – the prosecution just didn’t make their case. The scenes of African Americans celebrating the verdict are almost surreal (here, I think is one of the instances where viewing it all in one sitting would have helped – having those crime scene photos only an hour before the verdict and the celebration, rather than viewing them a day apart). It’s interesting to see some of those who celebrated the verdict – Civil Rights and Church Leaders especially – talk about the verdict now. Pointedly, they never saw that the think O.J. is guilty or innocent – but do talk about how the verdict was a wake-up to White America – that something that was so obvious to them came down the other way, which is something Black America deals with all the time. It’s really only here, I think, that the racial fault lines in America were seen by White America – Edelman does a brilliant job of saying they were always there, but they were invisible to those in the privileged position. From there, the movie delves into the years after O.J. was acquitted – the Civil Trial, which he lost and was ordered to pay millions (which he didn’t really do), the game of musical chairs O.J. did with his assets to protect them, how he still wanted to be loved, but found himself on the outside of the White America he had embraced – and had embraced him – for decades. How far he falls to make money – to exploit his infamy, including one sequence which shows multiple takes of O.J. taking down the American flag at his Rockingham estate, and getting mad at the person taking the video – who in reality, was his agent, who had conspired with O.J. to shoot the video, and sell it to the tabloids. There is a fascinating interview with Wendy Williams, in which she seems completely uncomfortable at first with O.J., but by the end, is laughing and almost flirting with him – O.J. was still charming. O.J. is basically leading a life of drug and alcohol fuelled excess – he doesn’t care if he’s famous because people think he’s a murderer – he’s still famous! The most fascinating part maybe when it details the crime in Las Vegas that led him to a 33 year sentence in prison. If you’re like me, and didn’t really know much about the actual crime, what’s shocking about it is how silly the whole thing seemed – it’s like a Keystone Cops routine, with a bunch of incompetent idiots doing something stupid. There’s no way in hell it warrants that sentence – as Carl Douglas says, that crime is “two years, soaking wet” – he got punished because he beat the murder charge, not because what he was convicted of warranted it. It’s uncomfortable after the sentence is read to hear Fred Goldman (who is a fascinating interview throughout the film, justifiably angry at many things – not least of which how pretty much everyone – the police, the prosecutors, the defense, the media, pretty much completely ignored his son who was murdered) say that O.J. deserves to be locked up “with his own kind” – a remark that is dripping with racist connotations, whether he meant it that way or not.
In short, O.J.: Made in America is about a lot more than O.J. Simpson, and the murders that most think he committed, even if he was acquitted. What Edelman has done with this sprawling, epic documentary is place the case in a larger context – as one event in the continuity of race relations of America in general, and L.A. is particular. It seems like, back in 1994, you either believed that O.J. was guilty and the LAPD had done nothing wrong, or you believe that the LAPD was racist, and OJ was innocent. What I think (hope) has happened in the intervening years is that people have stopped seeing the two as mutually exclusive – that OJ Simpson can be guilty AND the LAPD can have a history (and present) of racist behavior that needs to be addressed and corrected. Viewed in the context of the film that Edelman has so brilliantly laid out the verdict makes sense, even if, like most, you disagree with it. Marcia Clark says in the film that the trial was “so much bigger than us” – and that’s true. It was something that showed America at its ugliest, and laid bare the truth about race relations in America – something that isn’t pretty. But the film also doesn’t let the audience forget about the murders themselves – and how brutal they were, nor the issues of domestic violence that led to them. It is an all-encompassing case, where no one gets away clean – and that includes us in the audience, watching for each new, salacious detail. The film is, in short, a masterpiece.

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