Having lived through the murder trial of the century, the acquittal, the civil trial, the subsequent robbery and kidnapping arrest, multiple books and a just-completed miniseries, it would be understandable if America, not to mention Buffalo, didn’t want to spend any more time on O.J. Simpson.
But those who take the time to watch ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary, “O.J.: Made in America,” are unlikely to see a more compelling, riveting and educational 10 hours of television during the summer.
This documentary that will run over five nights in June is an excellent complement to “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” on FX that focused more on the lawyers involved in the 1995 murder trial than the former Buffalo Bills star running back acquitted in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ronald Goldman.
The documentary has more “wow” moments than Simpson’s storied college and professional football career. Among them:
• Simpson was able to legally earn $3 million signing autographs in his prison cell during his trial.
• The prosecution learned after Simpson’s acquittal that a jury member used to be a member of the Black Panthers.
• Simpson’s friends think he was insanely jealous and the belief that former USC star Marcus Allen had an affair with Nicole – Allen denied it – may have contributed to her murder.
• And, maybe most stunning of all, a former Simpson agent claims that Simpson told him something that sounded like a confession.
There are too many other wows to enumerate in the series directed by Ezra Edelman. The overriding one is wow, white America had no idea how difficult it was going to be for prosecutor Marcia Clark to win the case because of the racist history of Los Angeles, despite her belief that “I don’t think I had so much evidence in a case, ever.”
All will be on display when Part One of the series premieres on ABC on June 11, followed by additional installments on ESPN on June 14, 15, 17 and 18.
With interviews with Simpson’s relatives, childhood friends, white business friends, prosecutors, defense lawyers, footage of the televised murder trial and incredible behind-the-scenes footage, “Made in America” gives an amateur psychological study of the disgraced Bill who at an early age wanted to be a hero that led people to say, “There goes O.J.”
The plan worked. O.J. eventually had it made in America. He also was made by America and he helped create a charming image that eventually shattered.
Along the way, the documentary has a lot to say about the power of money in the judicial system, celebrity, the media, cameras-in-the-courtroom, domestic abuse, police abuse, and the racial divide that remains in America.
It takes the viewer on a trip from Simpson’s childhood, past the murder trial to the later civil trial in which he was found responsible for the deaths of his ex-wife and Goldman and continues through his seedy subsequent actions. They lead to a lengthy prison sentence for crimes that might have given anyone who wasn’t believed to have gotten away with murder a much shorter term.
Part One includes footage from Simpson’s days as a Bill from 1969 through 1977, initially looking like a bust before Coach Lou Saban resurrected his career and he ran for 2,003 yards in a season on his way to becoming a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.
Former Bills Joe DeLamielleure and Earl Edwards give positive tales of Simpson’s playing days that seem so meaningless now that there has been renewed discussion over whether his No. 32 should be put back into circulation.
One of the biggest moments comes in the final episode when Mike Gilbert, Simpson’s sports agent, says that Simpson told him if Nicole “hadn’t opened that door with a knife, she’d still be alive.” However, Gilbert’s claim – first made in 2008 – reportedly has been disputed by a Simpson lawyer.
Some Simpson friends believe he was a better actor that he ever was given credit for. They weren’t talking about his “Naked Gun” roles, but in his self-portrayal as a good guy who charmed everyone, transcended race and became an advertising superstar.
The documentary overwhelmingly supports the accuracy of the FX miniseries. The famous line in that series had Simpson saying, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” Civil rights activist Harry Edwards confirms hearing the line and there are subsequent examples of Simpson’s attitude throughout the film.
Sportswriter Robert Lipsyte provides another “wow” moment when he describes a scene in which Simpson was actually pleased that a racial epithet was used near him because it meant he was viewed differently.
“I knew that he was (expletive),” said Lipsyte, who believed Simpson always was playing a character he created.
Another incredible moment occurs when a policeman said Simpson used a racial epithet describing many of the supporters surrounding his house after the end of the famous Bronco chase.
Several scenes dealing with his acceptance in the white business world and avoidance of addressing black issues illustrate that the FX series got it right in portraying Simpson as unworthy of being portrayed as a victim of long-standing racial prejudice in Los Angeles highlighted by the Rodney King beating shortly before the murders of Nicole and Goldman.
Simpson lawyers and Los Angeles civil rights activists remain unashamed because, after all, they were just doing their jobs and making many white Americans – who expected a guilty verdict – understand their pain in a flawed, racially unfair system.
However, it is clear that shame can be spread around for all of the people who ignored or downplayed the domestic violence that Nicole endured during her marriage. Sportscaster Roy Firestone should cringe if he relives his interview with Simpson.
One of the few FX disappointments was the absence of any post-verdict remarks from the jurors that quickly acquitted Simpson. The documentary gets two jurors to explain why they shockingly spent so little time going over the evidence before acquitting him. The explanations underscore that the prosecution never really had a chance after jury selection ended with eight African-American jurors seemingly predisposed by Los Angeles history to think the judicial system was rigged against any black defendant.
This isn’t to say the prosecution, the police and DNA experts didn’t make many mistakes. They did. The most memorable one may have been when prosecutor Christopher Darden went against Clark’s advice and had Simpson try on the bloody glove. The actual trial scene validates how it was played in the FX series.
The famous line in the closing statement of Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” also is shown. As in the FX series, one juror dismissed the glove line as having any impact on the 12-member panel, whose members just wanted to go home after 266 nights in a hotel.
Viewers, on the other hand, will not tire of this documentary. For those who don’t feel they will have time to watch on schedule for five nights, here’s some advice with a nod to Cochran: If you just can’t sit, DVR it.