'As a kid growing up in the ghetto, one of the things I wanted most was not money, it was fame. I wanted to be known, I wanted the people to say, 'Hey, there goes O.J.'" So goes the familiar, rolling baritone voice of O.J. Simpson in part one of director Ezra Edelman's five-part, seven-and-a-half-hour documentary, O.J.: Made in America.
Just after the one-time football icon delivers his origin story, though, the film cuts to the inside of the Lovelock Correctional Facility, where a greying Simpson recites this narrative at his parole hearing.
It is easy to forget that Simpson has been in jail for the past seven years, convicted for the armed robbery of two memorabilia dealers in Nevada. That might be because after the memories of a white Bronco speeding down an L.A. interstate began to recede, after a black glove was found and tried on in court, and after a jury delivered a not-guilty verdict in the double homicide of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman back in 1994, Simpson was simply forgotten.
That's not to say he was forgotten by the Brown family, nor by by the Goldmans. And not even by the Kardashians, who owe their reality-television empire to him (it is from Robert Kardashian's residence that Simpson fled in that Bronco so many years ago). But by the millions of people who watched the televised court case unfold night after night, Simpson had indeed receded from memory and become a cultural footnote – if not a punchline.
Twenty-two years after the Trial of the Century, though, Edelman has painstakingly recreated a story that wasn't broadcast nightly into America's living rooms, with the 464-minute result screening next week as part of Hot Docs. This is a first for the Toronto film fest – never before has it featured a doc as long as this, with Made in America running in its entirety in consecutive screenings over a single day.
Asked if this was Hot Docs' attempt to adapt to the ways in which audiences now regularly binge watch their films and TV shows on streaming services such as Netflix, festival programmer Sarafina DiFelice says the fest simply "knew we were watching an outstanding documentary, and we [wanted] to bring our audiences examples of outstanding documentary work in all of its forms."
That may be true, but it doesn't hurt that viewers are now accustomed to marathon-viewing habits – and growing increasingly attached to true crime as a genre. From HBO's The Jinx to Netflix's Making a Murderer – not to mention, of course, FX's recently wrapped miniseries on the very same subject, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story – our thirst for reliving and obsessively dissecting the most lurid moments of American tabloid news is undeniable.
As with most stories in the true-crime genre, though, the victims fall away from this retelling. Brown and Goldman are discussed less and less as the doc evolves, which mimics this same erasure of their lives and deaths during the court trial itself.
But that's the thing about this case: there is hardly much speculation about whodunnit (save for another show in the works, bluntly titled Hard Evidence: O.J. is Innocent). And there is just as little mystery as to what happened during the trial: this is a story that viewers already know well, and yet here we are wanting to know more, or to know again.
What to make, then, of our culture's appetite for detail? Is there an ethical murkiness to wading back into a case that the judicial system declared closed?
"We live in the shadow of this particular case all the time, in the 24-hour news cycle it helped create and the questions of justice it raised, and indeed, in the recent trend of true-crime stories," says Jesse Wente, director of film programmes at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, who will be hosting Made in America's screening April 29.
Yet – twist! – according to Edelman, Made in America is "not true crime" at all. "The film is about O.J. and the film is about Los Angeles," the director says over the phone. "I was much more interested in the greater narrative and why people responded to the question of his guilt or innocence the way they did, more interested in O.J.'s character and the irony of someone's existence who, as a black man, lives his life trying not to be defined by his race – but then becomes such a symbolic character during the trial."
"The goal was to try to have the viewer emotionally respond to the series of injustices that black individuals, and in turn the black community, face at the hands of the police. To help you understand how they viewed the police and the distrust that they had in them," adds Edelman, whose doc will air on ESPN in June. "I think you really have to understand that this was something that was felt deeply in the bones of many people. And it really needs to be explained because of the way the trial was so divisive."
And that's the strength of Made in America: not its adherence to the true-crime canon, or its revelling in any of the legal manoeuvring celebrated in American Crime Story, but its attention to what happens to a community when a hero falls.
"I'm not black, I'm O.J.," Simpson said in 1967, becoming the epitome of a "colour-blind" America while the civil-rights movement raged around him. Edelman's series is as much about police brutality in L.A. and racial tensions in the U.S. as it is about a kid from the ghetto who became a Brentwood millionaire. On the heels of the Watts rebellion and the Rodney King beatings, black America, the film suggests, wanted justice for a black man – any black man – in 1994.
"A lot of people fundamentally did not understand why African-Americans were so distrustful of police," says Edelman, "and in turn didn't understand why they were so invested in O.J., and in turn didn't understand why they might have been celebrating so enthusiastically the verdict."
Edelman, though, is reticent to declare any opinion on Simpson's eventual fate, but what he did offer is telling enough. "It is curious that a man who went into a hotel room, however misguided it was, to steal back the memorabilia from people that he knew and was friends with and had worked with before … I can't for the life of me get my head around how that resulted in a 33-year sentence."
O.J.: Made in America screens as part of Hot Docs on April 29 (Part 1 only) and April 30 (hotdocs.ca).