Putting together a seven-and-a-half-hour documentary on any subject is a massive undertaking, and doubly so when the subject isn’t a world war or similarly expansive topic. So how does OJ Simpson: Made in America manage to fill so much time covering the biggest celebrity trial of the 1990s? By shifting focus from the actual crime to the socio-political circumstances that made it such an explosive event.
WATCH: Episodes of OJ Simpson: Made in America are available weekly Monday mornings at SBS On Demand.
Lesson 1: Background is important
To gain the true measure of a subject, it’s vital to build an understanding of where they came from. Director Ezra Edelman takes the time to interview OJ’s childhood friends about what life was like for them growing up, as well as covering his years as a professional footballer, charming product spokesman and media star. “I’m just looking at the human being who was a lot more complicated and complex than what he’s been reduced to in the last 21 to 22 years,” Edelman told Vulture. “As far as the idea of his identity and the choices he made, yeah, I have empathy and sympathy. And then it goes away.”
Lesson 2: It’s the journey, not the destination
If you’re expecting Edelman to launch into the murders immediately, take a breath. It isn’t until the third episode that we see what happened to Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. Before that, there’s a serious and detailed discussion of how black people were treated in Los Angeles at the time, contrasted with OJ’s rise to fame and fortune. “There was so much going on in this trial that had nothing to do with OJ,” Edelman told Vanity Fair. “[It] was about criminal justice in America and in Los Angeles. Regardless of what we think of OJ, here is someone who had been the Chosen One, the ‘Special Negro’, who was rich and famous and good-looking, who’d been accepted by white America, and if he can’t get justice, what hope do the rest of us have?”
Lesson 3: Keep it real
For many of us, removed from the actual events of 1994-5, this high-profile trial is perhaps more memorable as a cultural reference – Seinfeld’s Jackie Chiles as Johnnie Cochran, Jay Leno’s Dancing Itos, Norm Macdonald’s endless “Weekend Update” gags on Saturday Night Live. Edelman brings the reality of the situation into sharp focus with the decision to show graphic images of the crime scene. Asked why he included them, Edelman told The Verge, “Two people got murdered. Brutally murdered. This is what this is about... To have to look at him for two hours after those photos in the film, it sheds a different light on him, if you believe he’s guilty of murder. Because that’s not just murder. That’s a brutality that is so stark and graphic and horrible that I feel like you have to engage with it.”
Lesson 4: Find and expose the bias (including your own)
Everyone has their own set of beliefs and opinions informed by their background and experiences. This is an obvious thing to say, but can easily be overlooked when crafting a non-fictional narrative. Here, we see a range of these biases come into play, whether it’s the initial shock at what happened – based on OJ’s public image and celebrity – or Los Angeles police officers claiming not to have seen racism among their colleagues. “I was no different from anybody else,” Edelman revealed to The Observer. “I had my opinions, but I also realised because of how divisive the topic is, how people responded to it at the time and even henceforth, the thing that I really focused on was not bringing an agenda to the process.”
OJ Simpson: Made in America is streaming now with new episodes every Monday at SBS On Demand.