O.J.: Made in America is a masterpiece, as good if not better than the other critically acclaimed O.J. television miniseries, FX's American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. The documentary is quite different than the esteemed drama, despite balancing on the same person. It's arguably more ambitious. Where American Crime Story explored the trial, and how it changed the lives of those involved — the prosecution, the defense, the jury, and Simpson himself — O.J.: Made in America covers everything around and leading up to the trial. And I mean everything.
The seven and a half hour documentary is about race, policing, the idolization of sports stars, the commercialization of media, and so much more. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to speak with the film's director, Ezra Edelman, to discuss its many themes — including some that didn't make the final cut.
Chris Plante: The documentary is seven and a half hours long, but you've said elsewhere that you could imagine someone doing 50 hours on O.J. I assume while you were doing this documentary there were a lot of bits that didn't fit into the film, and I'm curious if there's anything that you really cared about that you still had to leave out?
Ezra Edelman: I mean, not really, in a weird way. I guess there are ideas that, I think if they had come together in a certain way, I would have liked to have included, and I would have tried to include them, but those are things that I actually didn't have the material for.
"There are endless strands [to this story]"
Saying you could do 50 hours on O.J. is hyperbolic, but I think the point is you could certainly, even with the way we set out to do this, go back further in history. You could sort of [expand on] the media more, you could go into the lives of the players in the trial, a la what FX did. I feel like you could do a Ken Burns approach to it, where you could sort of go off into these stories that sort of deviate further, for me, from the direct narrative.
I guess that's how I meant that: there are endless strands. But a couple of things I would have liked to included are things that I don't think it would be right to talk about publicly. Because if I didn't have the material to put them in the film, I don't think it's really right for me to talk about it in this form.
Sure, things that you thought might be there but the evidence didn't appear.
Let's talk about one thing that is in the film. I had never heard about the sexuality of O.J.'s father. Was that a thing that was widely known at the time? Is this something that you came across while researching?
"I didn't have any idea what would happen when I brought it up"
Yeah. I assume it wasn't widely known, because no one seems to have known it. I read about it in a book that did become a little bit of a thing during the trial, this book called Raging Heart, which is a book written by Sheila Weller, in which [former LAPD officer and friend of O.J.] Ron Shipp talked to her and she used a sort of pseudonym for him. People didn't know who this person was that she had on the record talking about all this stuff. Like when he said "I have had dreams of killing her," that was first printed in that book.
Anyway, it's just like a line in the book, it's not significant. Part of the process that I have is to sort of read everything I can get my hands on, and you find these little details here and there. I didn't have any idea what would happen when I brought it up to other people, and frankly I expected to have to prompt his friends directly about it, versus Calvin Tennyson, who's one of the first people I interviewed, he sort of said it himself without me asking about it.
I mean, I asked [Tennyson] about [O.J.'s] dad, but the story in the film he just tells.
Oh, wow. So yeah, that would tell you it's a thing O.J.'s peers had thought about.
Yeah, it was a thing that they knew. It wasn't pulling teeth, this was something that was matter of fact to their existence as friends of his from the time that they were kids. I have no explanation for who knew that or didn't know that or why no one talked about it 20 years ago.
I want to talk about a person that is not part of the documentary. I know you're not a huge fan of celebrity culture, and Kato Kaelin in particular. You didn't seek him out for interview. I'm curious if you can explain that decision. The documentary feels so all encompassing, and yet it seems like you're disinterested with the celebrity stuff around the case.
I don't think that's incorrect to say. I think I am disinterested in it, and you're right, that I basically knew I had to satisfy that narrative by alluding to it, but I really sort of — part of the goal for me in telling the story, period, was how do we differentiate the story that we're telling versus the things that people focused on at the time. Part of that was how it was covered and the celebrity aspect, the sensationalist aspect, in terms of how we all absorbed it. Kato Kaelin and the celebrities that popped up during the trial were reflective of that.
And so in some ways I didn't want to fall into a trap of telling that narrative and doing a retread of these characters that would satisfy a "Where are they now?" aspect of this story. I was hoping to do something, even if this sounds pretentious, just slightly elevated in the themes I was discussing.
Yeah, you can count on gossip magazines to do the "Where are they now?" immediately after your documentary airs.
"I didn't want to fall into a trap of telling that [celebrity] narrative"
Yeah. I don't want to get bogged down in like, "Oh, there's Kato Kaelin." I know I discussed [celebrity culture] in the movie, and it has to be discussed. But it's just one thing.
I can be like, I'm gonna avoid the celebrification of the trial and these characters, but I also wasn't that interested in dissecting the night of the murder, frankly. I knew I had to sort of discuss it in some way, in my way, to satisfy, informationally what needed to be conveyed, but I didn't want to go to this blow-by-blow thing. It's just not that interesting to me.
So for me, I don't know if it's right or wrong, but to say that I had an active disinterest is correct.
I want to dig into the murder, because I agree, it certainly felt that way watching the film. And if the sexuality of O.J.'s father was the most surprising thing I heard, the most surprising thing I saw was the crime photos.
I'm curious why you included them. And maybe that's an insensitive question on my end, because it is a murder and people should see that, yes, it actually did happen.
I actually think it's the second part of the answer of why I didn't include Kato Kaelin.
It's a little bit of, like, what was this ultimately about? And the idea that people got so wrapped up in Kato Kaelin and Faye Resnick and what Marcia Clark was wearing and Judge Ito and his desire to hang out with celebrities and the Dancing Itos, you know?
Two people got murdered. Brutally murdered. This is what this is about. And if you also want to look at it from the standpoint of what you think about O.J.'s guilt or innocence, I think that, for those who question or have questioned what happened that night or maybe believe that he might have been complicit somehow, but I don't know, kind of are forgiving of him. It makes a viewer — to me — focus on exactly what happened and what he might have done.
"Two people got 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. So that's why.
Honestly, I'm glad you showed the photos later, because I felt more open to the discussion around his innocence before the photos than I did afterwards. It felt like a very serious shutting down in my brain after those appeared.
Well that's right. It's informed by the material you have, and you have a very sober-minded DA [explaining the crime over the photos]. It's his theory of what happened, discussing this in very raw terms. He has given a presentation about this for 20 years. He also knew what we were trying to do. He was the one who provided those photos to us. They haven't been seen publicly. So I think there may have been that same interest on his part to get past the way that the story's been dissected or disseminated, to sort of cut through that and be like, "Here it is in plain view."
I didn't know that this is the first time they've been shown publicly.
I think so. But I don't want to... you know.
Switching to a very different topic: we're talking about this documentary as a movie. I saw it as a movie — two parts with an intermission. I think it's screened almost exclusively as a movie. When you took on the project–
It was a movie?
Yeah. But it's gonna air on ESPN not as a solitary object, right? It will air essentially as a TV show across multiple episodes and days. I'm curious: one, how you feel about that, but two, and probably more importantly, is ESPN doing anything to give the normal viewer the opportunity to see the documentary the way the critics have seen it: together.
You should talk to them. I mean, look, I can answer the question which is, I can tell you honestly, I'm someone who has... I've worked at HBO for 12 years. I did documentaries for them, where obviously there's no commercials. I don't build movies in a way with commercials in mind. The broadcast of something that should be absorbed continuously, to see it with commercials and / or with whatever sort of words that potentially may be bleeped out is something that I don't have much interest personally in watching.
"There's certain things I've tried to, had to divorce myself from, in my mind."
So, of course I would love people to watch it in its native form if possible. [ESPN has] a standard deal with Netflix, and this is where I don't want to speak out of turn, I just know they do have a standard deal with Netflix where their films go there, and I don't know if that's exactly what's going to happen with this, but certainly, I do think... look this has been such a long, hard, continuous process. Like, I'm still working today. We're not going to be physically done with this until next week. There's certain things I've tried to, had to divorce myself from, in my mind.
Should people actually sit in a theater all day and watch it for eight and a half hours with intermission, versus on TV? I don't want to basically be biting the hand that feeds me and be like, "You shouldn't watch it on television." Because I hope as many people watch it as possible. But it's a little frustrating from the sense that, in some way, it's not the best version of this.
I don't know how to say that in any more diplomatic of a way because it's clearly done for television and obviously I hope as many people watch it as possible. But my hope is also that there will be access to it later on, and the way people consume television now, they DVR things, and so–
They can make it work.
So if you do that and shuttle through the commercials, maybe that's an acceptable alternative. I don't know.
The documentary, for me, was in part about the trial by public opinion that happened at that moment, through the lens of what was going on in America both at that moment and in the decades leading up to it. Do you feel like in any way, with the with both the documentary and the TV show on Fox (American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson) that a new, obviously smaller trial of public opinion is happening over this case?
Well, I didn't watch any of the show, so I don't know. I'm sort of loathe to make statements about what's happening in the zeitgeist or what people are reacting to, because I've sort of existed in my own bubble during this whole process. I think one of the reasons why I didn't want to watch the show, and it has nothing to do with the the quality of it, it's just a little bit of "Eh, I've been doing this thing and I know how sensitive I am to things, and I think it would just hit me in a certain way."
And also, I just think it's a different thing; a different document. I guess I was taken aback a little by how much of a thing it became. I know I'm not answering your question, by the way.
So clearly, let's just say I might have underestimated the appetite for O.J. I can say that.
Correct me if I'm wrong in this wording, please, because I really don't want to misunderstand it, but I feel like I remember a moment where you're interviewing one of the jurors and you ask something to the effect of, "Was your decision of not guilty a payback for the Rodney King incident?"
And she says, "Yes."
"That's not the way juries are supposed to work"
And then, on the flip side, we later see the extreme punishment that happens in the Nevada trial years later, in which Simpson is found guilty and receives a severe punishment.
It's really fascinating to me because so often we have these conversations about "reforming the system," but what was fascinating about both these cases was the people who played a pretty important role in these decisions were the jurors, and it's not often we think of ourselves as a serious part of the issue. So, I'm curious of your opinion on the function of the jury, or to be clear, if your thoughts about how a jury should function changed while making the film.
Oh, "Did my opinion on the function of a jury, did that change in the course of me making the film?"
No. I feel that the jury, in both those cases, that's not the way juries are supposed to work. I mean like, Carrie Bess. I don't believe that a jury... this is part of this whole story, right? I empathize and understand why a jury might have fallen prey to the emotional residue of the previous decades that they lived through in LA, and how that might have informed their willingness to convict O.J., or however you want to describe it. But that's not the way they should be doing their job as jurors. It has nothing to do with that; it has to do with the case at hand.
And so I don't think there's any objective standard which we could offer to say, "No, that's okay, that's the way a jury should work." Even if you want to be like in some liberal way, "Oh, that's giving power back to the people." No, that's not the way juries work. You're not doing your job. The question is, is a jury nullification, in terms of a jury making a decision that has nothing to do with the evidence?
"As far as the jury in Las Vegas, I've got nothing for you"
Maybe, technically at some point, but I don't think you can monolithically say that for the entire jury. Which is why I actually think having two black women — people I think have conflated [the black women on the jury] as this one group of people who must have done this thing. No, they thought completely different and they came to their vote to acquit O.J. for completely different reasons, and I thought it was pretty important for people to see that.
As far as the jury in Las Vegas, I've got nothing for you. Just to accept that, yeah, I think that that's a weird fitting coda to this story, both in sort of the surreality and absurdness of the crime, and in the sort of meting out of karmic justice, which is again, not how the criminal justice should work.
You mentioned the appetite for O.J... stuff, without a better word to describe it, and I know you're reluctant to comment on the zeitgeist...
I can probably figure out something to say.
True crime feels as if it has become this pop culture thing in the last three years in a really strange way, where we are talking about instances where real people died. I am talking about Serial as maybe the beginning of this, like they're mystery-of-the-weeks that you would see on CSI. I'm curious if you have anything to help explain where this might have come from, and why now versus anytime before this?
I can't explain it, and I might sound naïve if I sort of reject this as a true crime film, because I don't really see it as such. I don't feel like this whole thing is built around the question of "one guy did or didn't do it." So in that way, this isn't The Jinx, and it's not Serial.
"I sort of reject this as a true crime film"
I think it has more elements in a weird way, despite it being a film versus being radio, or sorry, a podcast, of being Serial then The Jinx, in terms of just trying to purely understand what is going on. But those [programs] are much purer in their, "Did this guy do it or didn't do it?" And that's always the lens through which you're absorbing those stories. And that's not what we're doing.
It might be there, by the way, because of that question [of O.J.'s guilt or innocence] which has existed within people's minds for the last 20 years. But having said that, I feel like people have already made up their minds in many ways, and I almost knew that if that was the way that people were going to absorb this, and if that was the lens of the story, I kind of felt that then there was no point. And I'm gonna fail, because there's nothing I can really tell you. There's nothing I can really add to that story, for me. I might be wrong.
The thing it most reminded me of is, I don't know if you're seen the film Zodiac, but that kept popping into my head. You think it is a thing about finding out who did it or finding out the identity of someone and then it changes genre again and again, I felt like the movie was changing genre every hour. Your movie. Which was great.
I was gonna say, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
For me, that's a thrilling thing. Because you never get bored. And you realize that's a person's life. A person's life is not just a tragic arc, or just a murder mystery. It's many different things.
But the answer, by the way, you already know the answer to the question you're asking which is, I think that increasingly we culturally have fallen prey to our basest instincts in terms of what we consume and why we consume it. And I think there's nothing more titillating then the question of whodunit. That speaks to why people watch continuous reruns of Law and Order and why people watch CSI. These are all things, by the way, that I don't watch.
"I've never seen an episode of ['Law & Order' or 'CSI']"
I've never seen an episode of either of those two things. And so it is funny, and I completely understand and it's totally valid that people are going to ask me questions about this in regard to The Jinx or Making a Murderer, which is another thing I've been seeing because of how much they've been in the zeitgeist for the last year. It's just slightly ironic because I didn't absorb any of these things in terms before or during [production]. In a weird way, it was me purely looking at this thing, this topic, and evaluating it in a way, like, "How am I going to best tell this story?" And it has all these different elements in it.
Final thing. What do you recommend people read, either before the show or alongside the show? I'm sure you've read so much about this case, crime in general, Los Angeles, is there anything that you would say people should check out while they're, I guess enjoying this is not the best word, but watching it?
Well I don't want you to read anything while watching it; I want you to just watch it. That's the first thing. The few books I thought were the best were, I think Jeffrey Toobin's book was very good, The Run of His Life. I thought Larry Schiller's book, American Tragedy — he was embedded with the defense during the trial — is interesting. You get the sort of inner workings and a little bit more of the drama with the tensions of the defense team. And Vincent Bugliosi's book called Outrage, which sort of shits on the prosecution and how they were unable to get a conviction. It's a good, different perspective on the mistakes the prosecution made. The other really good book I found was Official Negligence, which is a book by Lou Cannon which is a history of the LAPD, and the black community in those 50 years, the later half of the 20th century. Yeah, I mean I've read a lot more books, but those are the few I would point to as worthwhile reading for anyone who wants to dive deeper in the trial.
O.J.: Made in America, Part 1 premieres Saturday, June 11th at 9PM ET on ABC. Parts 2–5 air on ESPN throughout the following week.