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ESPN's 7.5 hour O.J. Simpson documentary puts the trial of the century in context

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O.J.: Made in America premiered in full at the Sundance Film Festival

"Does this mean he’s innocent now?" asks the middle aged woman, grabbing my arm as we exit the theater. The "he" in question is O.J. Simpson, the subject of O.J.: Made in America. She looks at me like I have an answer. I don’t. Of course I don’t.

The exhaustive seven-and-a-half hour documentary premiered in full at this week’s Sundance Film Festival, but won’t air on ESPN until June, when it will be shown in five two-hour parts (including commercial breaks). Made in America is the latest notch in the belt for the sports network’s 30 for 30 documentary series. Originally devised as 30 documentaries to celebrate the cable channel’s 30th anniversary in 2009, 30 for 30 has since passed 60 docs, then 90, and now is chugging along, producing shorts, long-form docs, and even full series. 30 for 30 is ESPN’s most prestigious brand, and O.J.: Made in America is its most ambitious project to date.

Don't confuse the documentary with FX's glossy and provocative fictional retelling of the O.J. Simpson trial, American Crime Story. Directed by HBO Sports alum Ezra Edelman, Made in America is a film about racial double standards, persistent botched policing of minority neighborhoods, the power of celebrity, erasure of blackness, and, of course, O.J. Simpson, a man at the intersection of it all.

An exhaustive seven-and-a-half hour documentary

By the time the intermission arrived (three and a half hours in), the infamous trial of the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman had only just begun. Made in America, I suggest to my new friend at the theater, might not be about the verdict.

Take this not as a spoiler, but advance notice for anyone interested in investing the time: Made in America never answers the big question, and frankly, is all the better for it. Edelman focuses on the questions that inform Simpson's judicial status and it slowly, meticulously, and sincerely builds a case for context, explaining not why someone should feel that Simpson is guilty or innocent, but why they would. The film is elliptical, with the experience of Black America at one pole, and the life of O.J. Simpson at the other, the two rolling in and out of one another. A sleight of hand occurs within early episodes, which often drops Simpson’s story entirely to explore the complex history of African-Americans in South Central Los Angeles, and their harrowing treatment by the largely white and non-local police officers that patrol their streets.

The civil rights activism of the 1960s paves the way for Simpson to attend the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he is distanced from the civil rights activism taking place at other California universities like San Diego and Berkeley. Though USC’s football stadium is mere blocks from Watts, the LA neighborhood where riots took place only two years prior, Simpson had little interest in the movement. In one interview, the young athlete says, "I’m not black; I’m O.J."

Made in America doesn't try to answer the big question

Director Ezra Edelman contrasts historic events in the African American community with Simpson’s accomplishments. This man, we see, is both a product of his environment, and a walking rebuttal of its expectations. In one of the documentary’s most arresting moments, the doc intercuts a Bob Hope speech at USC — in which the comedian praises Simpson’s character while poking fun at college demonstrations — with footage from the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and RFK. Time and again (in the NFL, in Hollywood, in the courtroom) reality fails to puncture the self-absorbed cocoon in which Simpson places himself.

Edelman has crafted a structure that always seems to answer the viewer’s next question without allowing the complicated themes or various narrative threads to become overwhelming. Sometimes this is put to light use, like explaining Simpson's move to Buffalo, his poor early seasons in the National Football League, his improvements under a new coach, and the role of The Electric Company, the offensive line that helped him rush for over 2000 yards in a 14-game season, crushing the record previously set by Jim Brown, who in turn plays his own role in the protests and boycotts by black athletes.

Comparisons will surely be drawn to Serial and How to Make a Murderer when episodes of Made in America run this summer, both in their shared true crime conceit and larger thematic ambitions. But I’m curious who viewers will latch onto in this series. There are no heroes here, not even flawed ones — just a lot of tragic and divisive figures. Each person in O.J.'s life has something to gain from proximity to his celebrity; his power is paradoxically magnetized by criminal court. At the Sundance screening, comments from senior officials, civil rights activists, and defense attorneys each elicited laughs, cheers, and groans, all from different corners of the venue. This is a film you might regret discussing at family get-togethers.

This is a film about Los Angeles

ESPN itself is painted in such a poor light by the series that it’s easy to forget they funded the project. In a clip from a teeth-grinding interview on the network shortly after the horrific photos of Brown's bruised face surfaced, an ESPN anchor asks the star about poor treatment from the media, before interrupting to provide a defense on Simpson’s behalf. The film is littered with moments like this one, with rich white men using their power to maintain O.J.’s image and allowing his cruelty to go unchecked. Simpson’s punishment for beating his wife years before her murder, for example, is whittling away community service hours by organizing a celebrity golf tournament. When Al Michaels later says that no one could have imagined Simpson committing a murder, the person behind me let loose a comically loud and utterly warranted scoff.

That the most televised chapter in Simpson’s life is a small piece of a larger cultural puzzle is the true accomplishment of Edelman and his team of producers. By the fourth episode — dedicated to the trial — Simpson has evolved from the embodiment of a blinkered Los Angeles, to a symbol for an African-American community betrayed by law enforcement. When a juror estimates that 90 percent of her fellow jurors saw the not guilty verdict as retaliation for the Rodney King trial, it resonates, because the film has already taken the time early to show you the beating of King, the injustice in the court, and the protest, violence, and absent policing. And yet, the film has allowed O.J. Simpson’s friends and peers to state in no uncertain terms their belief that he murdered his ex-wife and her friend.

One interviewee explains how, for African-Americans who’d seen members of their community denied trials or killed by the police, a not-guilty verdict felt like the beginning of a new age. The explanation is so powerful. In the theater, I was transported to my elementary school classroom, where my teacher, Mrs. Carter, the only black woman on staff, wept with joy as the verdict was read over the radio. I couldn’t grasp sympathy for a man I was told was a killer. Today, I understand. What an overdue epiphany.

"The one thing I don’t want people to dwell on is guilt or innocence, which is incidental," Edelman said during the post-film Q&A. He hopes that if people stick with the three hours before the murder, they’ll understand where people were coming from, both black and white, when the trial took place. Made in America exemplifies what a crucial tool documentary filmmaking can be, helping us contextualize some of our most told and retold stories not as individual events, but as the products of an endlessly complicated history.