FX and ESPN appear to have dueling projects on O.J. Simpson.
That really should not be the case.
Because ESPN’s “O.J: Made in America” and FX’s “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” make great companion pieces that ideally would be played simultaneously.
They won’t be.
ESPN premieres the entire seven-and-a- half-hour running time of the “30 for 30” documentary series about the rise and fall of the former Buffalo Bills great today at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, 11 days before the Feb. 2 premiere of FX’s scripted limited series on the behind-the-scenes drama involving Simpson’s murder trial.
Unfortunately, the nation won’t be able to see ESPN’s riveting, frightening and sad portrait of the demise of an African-American football hero whose popularity transcended race until ESPN plans to carry it over five nights in June.
The two cable projects complement each other very well in telling the ironic story of how a beloved black athlete who ignored his community and the civil rights movement and gravitated to friendships with wealthy white businessmen was acquitted of murder after his lawyers smartly and effectively used the long documented prejudices of the Los Angeles Police Department against African-Americans as a large part of the defense.
The two Simpson projects take different ways to tell a story that still resonates today with all the racial strife between African-Americans and police in several cities.
Based on a book by Jeffrey Toobin, FX’s project premiering on Feb. 2 focuses mostly on the personalities of the so-called Dream Team of famous lawyers who led Simpson’s defense against the case of prosecutors who became famous during his 1995 murder trial.
Directed by Ezra Edelman, ESPN’s project deals with Simpson’s entire life starting with his childhood in San Francisco when his goal was to become famous.
The thorough ESPN project includes interviews with his childhood and adult friends, former teammates, civil rights activists and Simpson himself through file footage. It also includes file footage of Simpson’s exploits on the football field during a community college, college and professional career that led one film director to call him a “Baryshnikov” of the game.
Notably, the ESPN film spends more time than FX discussing the climate of prejudice in Los Angeles that may have contributed to Simpson’s acquittal despite what seems to be a mountain of evidence against him in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Those differences aside, the two projects do have more than a few things in common.
They both deliver the messages that Simpson didn’t have much to do with the African-American community and saw himself differently.
“I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” says Simpson in the FX film.
In the ESPN film, Dr. Harry Edwards said Simpson said those exact words when approached to aid the civil rights movement.
“He was seduced by white society,” said childhood friend Joe Bell, who later added Simpson lost his identity.
The documentary features Simpson at the height of his popularity, which illustrates how difficult it is to cast anyone to play him in a movie.
Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the part in the FX film. He has Simpson’s pleasant and likable attitude but doesn’t have his charisma, his body, his voice or his good looks.
In fairness to Gooding, very few people had the Simpson’s qualities that led him to use his status as a football star to become an advertising pitchman, football commentator and a movie actor.
Off the first two, 90-minute episodes of the ESPN film available for review, the project looks like must-see TV even for those who are so familiar with the trial and don’t think they can learn anything new about a case and verdict that was looked at through a racial divide.
The ESPN film works on multiple levels, including documenting the history of race relations in Los Angeles and its police department, the racial attitudes of the advertising industry, and life as a celebrity. As an added bonus, there is the opportunity to hear some classic voices of sportscasters, including Chris Schenkel.
Several of the interview subjects are excellent in telling stories that help explain Simpson’s persona.
One of the best is Robert Lipsyte, a New York Times reporter who tells several interesting stories.
One of the best stories concerned the time Simpson told him he overheard someone saying they saw him with other wedding guests sitting at a table. The other guests – but not Simpson -- were described with the “N” word. Lipsyte thought Simpson would be upset and was surprised that he felt otherwise.
Lipsyte said O.J.’s response was: “No, it was great. She knew I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J.”
“At that moment, I knew then he was (expletive deleted),” said Lipsyte.
The film also has confirms a good deal of gossip.
It starts with the fact that Simpson stole his first wife Marguerite from his best friend, Al Cowlings, who is best known for driving the White Bronco during the 1994 Freeway chase after police decided to charge Simpson.
Viewers also learn about the sexuality of Simpson’s father and the long-rumored affair that Nicole had with Simpson friend Marcus Allen, whose old denial is shown.
And that’s just the gossip in the first two episodes.
The first episode opens with an older and heavier Simpson, imprisoned for a different crime, talking to a parole board before flashing back to his days as a charismatic football star at USC who won the Heisman Trophy and became the No 1 pick of the 1969 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills.
Of course, Buffalo viewers probably are very interested in how the area is portrayed.
Ex-Bills Booker Edgerson, Joe DeLamielleure and Earl Edwards are interviewed in the 15 minutes of the first episode devoted to Simpson’s time in Buffalo away from the glamour and attention he craved in Los Angeles.
“It was the last place you’d want to be,” said Edwards of Buffalo. “Just like being sent to Siberia.”
Simpson’s disappointing first two seasons before Coach Lou Saban resurrected his career and Simpson ran for 2003 yards in a season are addressed.
As bad as Buffalo looks, Los Angeles comes off looking much worse in the second episode as its history of racial injustice is put on full display.
The Rodney King beating is shown in the opening two minutes of the FX series before the project leaps forward two years. ESPN devotes more attention to it and the resulting riots after the policemen caught on video were acquitted to remind African-Americans to be frightened of the unchecked power of police.
Civil rights leaders and sociologists emphasize that unlike star athletes Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Simpson avoided speaking out on African-American issues.
He was more interested in his endorsement career, highlighted by the Hertz ad that had the football star running through airports to symbolize the speed of getting a car rental reservation.
The ad also symbolized how easy it was for Simpson to be a commercial pioneer in what had been an all-white world. It was a world that embraced him as much as he embraced it.
Few people looked beyond his outward charm. Not even legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell, who during an interview after Simpson won the Heisman Trophy praised him for his “impeccable character.”
The film pretty much destroys that idea by noting that there were two sides to Simpson – the pleasing one he constantly displayed in public and the violent one he more than occasionally displayed in private.
His frequent womanizing led to problems in his marriage to Nicole, problems one friend partly attributed to Simpson being “just as jealous as he was a good football player.”
According to the second episode, Nicole Simpson told officer John Edwards that police had been sent to the Rockingham home in Brentwood, Calif. eight different times before O.J. was charged with domestic abuse on Jan. 1, 1989.
Ron Shipp, a friend of the Simpsons who worked in the Los Angeles police department, noted how differently the superstar was treated than any other person in his situation.
The first two episodes available for review conclude before the murder and subsequent trial are addressed. But we all know the story ends with the fame that Simpson so desperately sought turning into infamy despite his acquittal.