Out of the summer-movie doldrums a masterpiece emerges: Ezra Edelman’s seven-and-a-half-hour O.J.: Made in America, which played to favorable notices at Sundance and was subsequently picked up by ESPN (it’s now available for streaming through ESPN.com). It seems obvious that no one knew how best to distribute this property, which must have seemed too unwieldy and not commercially viable enough to book theatrically but risks becoming lost in basic-cable purgatory. I hope that it doesn’t fall through the cracks, because it’s a magnificent piece of documentary filmmaking, gripping and smart and hugely ambitious. Ostensibly a biographical portrait of the life and career of O.J. Simpson, the film is about so much more—namely, the toxic confluence of events that led to Simpson’s acquittal of the charge of double homicide in 1995.
The first two parts of the film (it's divided in five, like a Shakespearean tragedy) detail the making of Simpson’s celebrity as a football star and TV pitchman in the 1970s and ’80s. The next two cover, in exhaustive detail, the tabloid saga of Simpson’s murder trial. The final act opens with the riotous response to the jury’s verdict, Simpson’s fall from grace, and his fatal undoing at a Las Vegas casino where a botched attempt to recover pieces of his own memorabilia leads to his re-arrest. But Edelman interprets Simpson in light of the whole history of race relations in L.A. over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, from the Civil Rights era to Rodney King, to staggering effect. The scandalous juiciness of the murder case remains as intriguing as ever, but it’s not milked for titillation or cheap effects; it’s rather that the basic power of the story comes to feel even more intense, and its stakes even more urgent, when set against the backdrop of its contexts.
With the rhetorical skill of an expert journalist, Edelman builds the twin narratives of the film—the story of O.J.’s rise to power and the racial tensions mounting outside the invisible circle of his own wealth and privilege—deliberately and methodically, brick by brick, so that we gradually come to see their intersections without ever having to be “told” anything. Edelman never lectures, harangues, coddles, or sentimentalizes: he builds. I came to the film knowing nothing about Edelman, whose only previous credits as a director include three made-for-cable sports documentaries, and I left having been bowled over by his intelligence and control. The film has been assembled out of countless hours of archival footage, in addition to new interviews with dozens of the story’s key players. Edelman's approach is always to complicate rather than to simplify, and to keep all of the edges jagged. The film is brilliant because it remains constantly aware of the paradoxes, the hypocrisies, the tragic ironies, and the dramatic reversals that crisscross its narrative at every turn.
The ideas in this film are given such enormity that it comes to feel epic in a way that very few documentaries do, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke being two notable exceptions. Watching it I thought that this may be the most profound and ambitious film ever made about race in America. It’s certainly one of the bitterest and most crushing. No matter what one’s feelings about whether Simpson was innocent or guilty of murder—or whether his 2008 conviction was poetic justice or the system at work or both—one cannot help but walk away heartbroken from O.J.: Made in America. There are no winners in this story.