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 Monday at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, 11 days before the Feb. 2 premiere of FX’s scripted limited series on 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.
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 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 that Simpson lost his identity.
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.
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. Not well.
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,” Edwards said of Buffalo. “Just like being sent to Siberia.”
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.
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 Brown Simpson, 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.
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.