Director – Ezra Edelman
Length – 464 minutes (that’s 7 hours and 46 minutes (!!!) without commercials). I’m unsure of the total window of the film with commercials given it airs across 5 windows.
Installment – #83-87 of 30 for 30/ESPN Films series. ESPN is labeling the five installments as individuals 30 for 30s, so it’s being labeled as multiple episodes.
Most Similar To – Honestly this is way different than anything else but if I had to pick it’s No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson
Grade/Ranking – It is indeed the best of the series although it will depend on your interest in the topic versus other top tier 30 for 30s.
Review – Where to begin? Normally, I’m one of a handful of advanced reviewers of every 30 for 30 with other reviews being one-off reviews from local writers of the team/area that the 30 for 30 focuses on. This time, I’m one of a few hundred including some of the best movie reviewers in the business. I’ve yet to see a negative review (the film holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) as ESPN may indeed be bringing an Oscar award back to Bristol after having decided to release the film (kind of) to make it Oscar eligible.
I’ve tracked this project for a while. In fact, I was the first to report Ezra Edelman would direct back when we thought the film would be closer to five hours. Now that it’s here, how do I concisely convey its unique greatness? The biggest compliment I can give O.J.: Made in America is this…
I’m going to watch it again when it airs. All nearly eight hours of it. For most 30 for 30s, I watch the screener and that’s it. Perhaps if I liked it, I’ll put it on in the background while I work or maybe watch bits of it again later if I have some free time, but I very rarely view them twice. One pass within a few weeks is enough.
While exalting O.J.: Made in America has become a bit trendy as many different, unique, ambitious projects often are and inevitably the gobs of praise may leave some thinking the film doesn’t live up to the hype, I felt the film delivered across the board. There weren’t areas or stories the film didn’t cover. There weren’t subjects that it did drill down on that didn’t pay off. The film never really dragged. In fact there are some spots, it is VERY riveting.
Edelman is one of my favorite documentary filmmakers. This film elevates his stature from up and comer to someone capable of taking on any type of project – and he’ll likely have that freedom when the smoke clears here.
Breaking down the film a bit, the five segments are more or less in this format:
Part 1 – O.J.’s upbringing and football career.
Part 2 – Racial history of Los Angeles, history of O.J. and Nicole, the early investigation and chase, some pre-trial stuff
Part 3 – Early trial
Part 4 – Late trial
Part 5 – Verdict, civil trial, O.J.’s downward spiral and robbery incident
None of the five parts didn’t deliver. If ranked individually compared to the other 82 30 for 30s, I think all of them would rank in the Top 20, probably the majority of which would be in the Top 10.
Personally, I was engrossed with Part 2 as the film pauses telling Simpsons’s story and focused on the racial history of Southern California. For 30-45 minutes, the film takes a deep dive here without nearly a mention of Simpson. You almost forget what you’re watching and yet you’re riveted with the high impact waves of context provided. I was familiar with some of the various backstory here but Edelman really flexes his storytelling ability here to a point where you wonder if we’ll ever see him do a 30 for 30 again given how well he handles the complexity of racial tension and injustice across multiple decades in Southern California.
For many, Parts 3 and 4 maybe the high water marks for the film. For me, there was a bit of a redundancy coming off of having watched the recent ten hour FX series that largely focused on the trial. In some interviews, Edelman has come across as being a bit annoyed for a lack of a better word with the FX series’ existence and I can see why given the bulk of that series overlaps with the middle component of the documentary. The quality is there throughout and it’s not like the trial was in any way boring. It was maybe the greatest reality show ever, but I found myself saying a few times “I know that already!” given the recent refresh of the trial via the FX series.
The bookends of the film are fairly sturdy on their own. Part 1 is really the only portion of the film that paints Simpson in any type of a positive light and is a comprehensive look at his upbringing and career, which was very insightful given many people my age and younger just think of Simpson as the murder defendant who used to play football but with very little knowledge of the intricacies of his life before then. I can see some being perturbed that Simpson receives fair and perhaps even positive framing here, but rest assured that is segmented to Part 1.
I enjoyed Part 5 a lot as well, specifically we get a look at OJ after the trial and an extensive background on the robbery, both of which are probably a bit murky in terms of the public’s awareness.
So why is this sooooo good?
The closest thing I can compare this to is HBO’s The Jinx, which meticulously and artfully guided viewers through the complicated and potentially criminal life of Robert Durst. What resonated with viewers there is what sticks out here.
The film succeeds in having access to a very large amount of individuals. A candid Marcia Clark, Simpson’s business manager, the former CEO of Hertz, those involved in with the Las Vegas robbery, childhood friends, local Los Angeles media, Mark Fuhrman, jurors, defense lawyers, and relatives of the victims. The various interviews seem comprehensive and candid enough that they really drive the storytelling forward at a consistent pace, never slowing too much.
There is also a wealth of archival footage that provides context for the irreplaceable and surreal atmosphere that surrounded the investigation, chase, and trial. However, what really adds to the film is the amount of home video footage included which includes footage of Simpson on the day of his verdict and release back at his home having colorful reactions watching post-trial coverage.
All in all, the recipe is pretty simple here. A wealth of very telling and insightful interviews, a glut of archival footage which stands on its own, and some new unseen footage as well as newly produced clips and segments. All of it is top tier quality and assembled with great care. There is no special sauce here or reinventing of the wheel. Everything is just done at an elite level and the subject matter is so engrossing (perhaps a guilty pleasure we’ve avoided for decades after gorging on it back in 1994-95), that the end result is potentially ESPN’s best piece of original content in its history.
Some highlights with mild spoilers
Below a list of some of my favorite moments. Feel free to skip if you want to go in 100% fresh, but rest assured these don’t really spoil much.
Best quote – “What the fuck dude!”- Marcia Clark reacting to the court playing tapes of Fuhrman making racist comments.
Most cringeworthy moment – The film for quite some time doesn’t get really specific about the murder scene and autopsies. However, there is 1-2 minute scene in which one of the prosecuting lawyers essentially gives his best guess of blow by blow analysis of how the murders happened as footage of the victims and scene are shown. It’s a very very chilling moment that I wonder if it will require any type of warning before airing.
Most comical moment – One of the jurors, when asked her opinion on Clark, does not say a word but rather makes a very colorful thumbs down gesture before snickering.
Most entertaining footage – There is a montage of surveillance footage from the hotel casino where the 2007 robbery happened. The gang of misfits who partook in this crime must have walked around for half an hour looking for the right hotel room and the surveillance footage offers a brief moment of levity as they traverse the casino multiple times over unable to find their destination.
Most visually compelling footage – The various shots of reactions to the verdict is quite striking and will certainly leave an impression.
Best interview – Clark is good as is Simpson’s business manager who really provides the most insight of anyone, but I’ll go with defense attorney Carl E. Douglas who adds a lot of colorful analysis and insights into the trial.
Biggest omission – Yeah it wasn’t really relevant, but the infamous prank call on ABC News at the end of the chase did not make the documentary.
Should you watch?
Nearly eight hours is a huge commitment. Totally get it. Is it worth your time? Depends on your interest in O.J. Simpson and what else you have going on. If you’re on the fence, I’d suggest DVRing it at the very least. The summer is long and without much new original programming or much sports you should be able to carve out time. I don’t think this is going to be regular thing for ESPN or 30 for 30, so if inclined work your way through it as it really is a new high for ESPN original programming.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Part 1: Saturday, June 11th, ABC, 9 PM
Part 2: Tuesday, June 14th, ESPN, 9 PM
Part 3: Wednesday, June 15th, ESPN, 9 PM
Part 4: Friday, June 17th, ESPN, 9 PM
Part 5: Saturday, June 18th, ESPN, 9 PM