Ezra Edelman's Oscar-winning documentary, O.J.: Made in America, currently streaming on BBC iPlayer, is causing as much frenzy in the UK as it did in the U.S. last June when it aired on ESPN. But don't expect the series, which spans seven hours and 43 minutes, to be a rehash of FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
The first episode of Edelman's project isn't about Nicole Brown Simpson or her relationship to O. J. Simpson. Instead, it focuses on Simpson's early life and the culture of Los Angeles in the 1960s. The first episode also looks at Simpson's childhood in San Francisco, where he grew up in a public housing project in Potrero Hill. It also features multiple statements from interviews with one of Simpson's close childhood friends.
For people who weren't alive or old enough to follow the news of Simpson's trial, it's all too easy to isolate the stories of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman. But O.J.: Made in America illustrates how many other factors there were in the decades before the incident — many of which influenced the trial.
The first and second episodes of the series delve into topics like the racial biases shown by the LAPD in various instances in the decades before the murders. The documentary examines the Watts Riots of 1965, which began after an African-American motorist was arrested for drunk driving. The event resulted in a scuffle with white police officers — and the riots led to more than $40 million dollars in property damages, according to the Civil Rights Digital Library.
In The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Cuba Gooding Jr., who played Simpson in the FX show, says, "I'm not black, I'm O. J." The sentiment is reflected in the accounts presented in Edelman's documentary. As a football star at the University of Southern California and then as a member of the Buffalo Bills, Simpson worked to distance himself from the racial politics around him, something the first instalment of O.J.: Made in America explores.
Simpson's perceived attempts to avoid wading too far into issues of race helped him gain favourability among white Americans, a factor O.J.: Made in America chronicles in detail. A significant part of the documentary is devoted to Simpson's Hertz commercials in the late 1970s. One of the most famous ads showed Simpson running through an airport — past numerous smiling white faces — and renting a car at Hertz. (The documentary also touches on Simpson's film career after the commercials, including starring roles in the Naked Gun franchise.)
O.J.: Made in America blends archival footage, like the Hertz commercials, with new interviews from key figures in Simpson's life (and the eventual trial). Some of the interviews include shocking statements that illustrate how deep the racial tensions were in L.A., and across America, long before Simpson went to trial. For example, Fred Levinson, the ad director behind the Hertz commercials, says in the documentary that Simpson "really almost had white features," as SB Nation points out.
Aside from providing background about racial tensions, the first episode of O.J.: Made in America also features Simpson's remarkable sports prowess. The documentary includes plenty of footage of Simpson's football accomplishments, such as when he rushed for 1,709 yards and won the Heisman Trophy in 1968. That same year, Simpson was drafted by the Buffalo Bills. He played with them for years before playing two seasons for the San Francisco 49ers ahead of his 1979 retirement.
Edelman assembled interviews with an impressive roster of figures for the documentary. The project includes commentary from Mark Fuhrman, the former LAPD detective who told the New York Post that he wouldn't watch The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The ESPN documentary also includes interviews with Marcia Clark and Bill Hodgman, prosecutors from the trial, which ended in Simpson's acquittal.
"I was intrigued by the formal challenge of making a five-hour movie, because I was interested in the 30 years before the murders, the city, race and identity, and the juxtaposition with O. J.'s story," Edelman told The New York Times. "This is a big American studies paper. This touches on everything in our culture. I wanted to tell that."