'I'm not black," the man himself declared. "I'm O.J."
If you think you've now had your fill of O.J. Simpson, or if you think you got new insight from the excellent drama The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, you are wrong. That was just the trial drama. Lurid though it was and enlightening, it was a slice of O.J. Simpson's life.
Sports can illuminate everything. Sometimes we forget that fact in our fervour to create simple narratives about triumph and defeat, tactics and the minutiae of single games. In the matter of O.J. Simpson, sports is an entry into multiple layers of recent American history.
O.J.: Made in America (Saturday, CTV, 9 p.m.) is an epic five-part documentary series about O.J.'s life. Even if you think you know the story, from a sports perspective or from knowledge of the trial, you're in for a shock. It can blow your mind, this thorough series, as it digs deeper and deeper. Made by Peabody- and Emmy Award-winning director Ezra Edelman, this is documentary filmmaking at the Ken Burns level. Or, as one recent review in the United States suggested, it is best placed alongside Making a Murderer or HBO's The Jinx.
When Edelman introduced the series to critics at our press tour in L.A. in January, he described it as "a story about race and celebrity in America, and it's going to really touch on O.J.'s life as a whole, but also it's a story about the City of Los Angeles and race going back to the fifties and sixties, so there's a concurrent narrative that takes place that intersects with the murders in 1994."
It is all of that, and some of its power comes from simply being chronological. It starts with O.J.'s childhood, follows his career and goes into depth about the trial, and then goes beyond. There are 72 people interviewed, including many of Simpson's old friends and long-time associates, as well as members of the jury in his trial, plus prosecutor Marcia Clark, several journalists who covered the trial and historians and cops. Even the notorious Mark Fuhrman is given space to talk.
Context is everything with Simpson and the recent death of Muhammad Ali puts O.J.'s story in a very specific context. When he was young and becoming famous at USC, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1968, Simpson intuitively and cunningly reacted against the narrative of the famous black athlete as disruptor and provocateur.
Ali refused to go to Vietnam; athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics. What Simpson wanted to be was the opposite – the amiable black athlete that white establishment figures were comfortable with. That's where safety, power and money were located. He knew it and delivered. He wasn't going to disrupt anything.
He was, the series suggests, already writing a narrative and creating a character. A key point is that he always carved out a role by "responding more to how people saw him than anything else."
What bolsters the series from the start is its penetrating look at race relations and the conduct of the Los Angeles Police Department over the decades leading up to the Simpson murder trial. That wasn't the first case in which police conduct was dubious. Case after case is explored to emphasize that by the time of the Simpson trial, a vast a number of L.A. citizens knew that the police department had abused its power, over and over, and the time was ripe for payback. Edelman suggests that if ever there was a time for a black man to be on trial for murder and the police to be under heavy and pained scrutiny, then 1994 was that year.
By the time the series covers the trial, Edelman has subtly put the American media on trial. Simpson had a reputation for being violent with women, but nobody wanted to write about that. Certainly nobody covering the trial for television wanted to suggest that. The sports element and hero worship dominated everything. The series points out that during the infamous white Bronco chase, on ABC Al Michaels was dismissive of the charges against Simpson, asserting that nothing in Simpson's past indicated he could be capable of violence and murder.
A better narrative was to treat the situation as a bizarre mystery. But much more emphatically than The People v. O.J. Simpson, this series underlines the brutality of the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. The word "gruesome" doesn't do it justice.
Just as Simpson himself created a narrative, the series suggests, the public and the media constructed a storyline about Simpson that suited them. Nobody, it seems, wanted to acknowledge how horrific the murders were. In a way, that's how Simpson wanted it from the start – there would be nothing messy or off-putting about his persona.
This sprawling and inclusive documentary, made for ESPN's 30 for 30 slot, manages to cast a cold eye on his life and draw all the threads of meaning together. It's a remarkable, scintillating achievement.