O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA (Movie Review)

**** out of ****
(Rated R level content, including graphic/gruesome crime scene images and strong language; some stripper club nudity in the final hour)
Released: August 4, 2016
Runtime: 467 minutes (7 hours, 47 minutes; told in 5 parts)
Ezra Edelman

(Can be seen via ESPN’s VOD service, available through most cable and satellite providers. Also available through Hulu.)

On October 3, 1995, when the O.J. verdict was read, that was the day America’s historical racial injustices finally came home to roost.

Few works have captured so comprehensively the racial tragedy that still tears at the heart of the United States’ moral fabric. Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary 13th (streaming on Netflix) succeeds to an intellectual degree by insightfully linking historical post-slavery iterations, but producer/director Ezra Edelman takes the ultimate anecdote of the O.J. Simpson murder trial to hold a mirror up to where we currently stand and how we got here. DuVernay builds a case for our heads and even our hearts, but Edelman’s punches us right in the gut.

How do we get a #BlackLivesMatter movement? This is how. If you’re white, and you ever want to try and grasp how they feel, think about that sick pit in your stomach when you heard that O.J. verdict (and how you still feel about it over twenty years later), then magnify that feeling over your entire lifetime and 400 years of helplessly enduring innumerable other injustices like that one (and worse).

The evolution of our intransigent polarization is the societal equivalent of photos showing the progression of Nicole Brown Simpson’s injuries from spousal battery, shown chronologically, leading up to the gruesome images from her murder scene.

O.J.: Made In America is a 7 hour and 47 minute sprawling saga, broken up into 5 parts, that is an absolute monolith of documentary filmmaking. It’s nearly eight hours of contemplating, simmering in, and exposing injustice – not just in one case, but systemically. Produced by ESPN’s “30 for 30” brand (and available through that network’s VOD service), it’s not only a deep dive into the endlessly compelling details, minutia, and surrealism of the murder trial of O.J. Simpson for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole and an ill-fated restaurant errand employee Ronald Goldman, but it’s about how something so open and shut could end in such a mind-boggling, sickening inequity.

Every misstep in the investigation and trial is covered, analyzed, and keenly evaluated, but Edelman goes far beyond that to show the historical and cultural context within which seemingly obvious, objective facts could be understandably deemed suspicious and untrustworthy. It’s an indictment of what a corrupt Los Angeles police department wrought (not in this specific investigation but, rather, from years of unchecked racism, bias, and tolerance for police violence – occasionally lethal – that contaminated this trial’s soil).

Prosecutors Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, and Bill Hodgman did not lose this case; the history of the L.A. Police department did. It had been lost long before the murders had ever even been committed.

What O.J.: Made In America paints so clearly is that decades of injustice towards African-American Angelinos were finally put on trial, not Orenthal James Simpson. It’s an authoritative achievement. Edelman doesn’t craft a narrative that excuses one injustice because of so many others. He exposes and laments them all.

Even so, Edelman is careful not to debate whether what happened in the O.J. case was right or wrong, but shows how it was absolutely inevitable. After a half-century of abuses starting at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, in which racially motivated police violence was routinely acquitted (most infamously after the 1991 police beating of African-American driver Rodney King), the LAPD finally paid for it all when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty. Tragically, so did Nicole Brown, Ronald Goldman, and their families.

Edelman’s five-part, nearly eight-hour film makes the connections and builds the case in a convincing, mesmerizing fashion, through visuals of deeply resourced archives that are set against revealing (and confessional) candid interviews from key players and friends, and all perspectives are insightfully compiled. It’s also a chilling portrait of the lifelong descent by a beloved American icon into sociopathic narcissism, entitlement, self-loathing, jealousy, abuse and, finally, to becoming a killer of the most barbaric and brutal kind.

No doubt many will see this as karma on an epic scale, and those fueled by anger or vengeance will look at the result of the O.J. trial as something that L.A. had coming, and perhaps take a bitter satisfaction in how the scales tipped. But for those who can extend empathy to both sides of the racial divide, all you’re really left with here is not morbid satisfaction but gut-wrenching sorrow. It’s all tragic, all unjust, and all of our making (or, at the very least, of our allowance). It’s not titled “O.J.: Made In L.A.” for a very valid reason; L.A.’s sin is merely an extension of our national one, and it’s a transgression we’ve still not been able to fully repent of or reconcile.

Indeed, to notch it all up to “karma” actually makes it too easy to dismiss these events, or this history. Rather, the more truthful moral axiom comes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It’s not enough to have our anger appeased when perpetrators are dealt a grave injustice of their own. Satisfying comeuppance though it may be, the result is only more victims, and no more justice.

That was certainly true for Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.

To believe in karma allows us to smugly move on. But to acknowledge that the acquittal of O.J. Simpson is yet another injustice in a long line of the same root problem, it forces us to confront injustice anywhere, and fight for justice everywhere. If we don’t, then movements such as Black Lives Matter will remain. Regardless if you support or take issue with that ongoing protest, it exists (and always will, in some form) so long as the history that Ezra Edelman expertly contextualizes here is never adequately addressed, or changed.

We have to stop the cycle of “making sure the other side gets theirs” gratification.

O.J.: Made In America compels us to acknowledge this national wound by making us angry about all the right things, and making us sick in the pit of our souls. It won’t inspire everyone to activism, nor does it need to, but it can renew every good person’s innate desire to be a part of the solution, not the problem.

But even setting aside that potential greater good, O.J.: Made In America is simply one of the most compulsively watchable things you’ll ever cue up.

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