'O.J.: Made in America': Inside ESPN's Definitive Simpson Doc

Epic chronicle of the Juice's life reframes "Trial of the Century" through the lens of race — and makes you rethink the entire story

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'O.J.: Made in America': Inside ESPN's Definitive Simpson Doc
Director Ezra Edelman talks ESPN's upcoming seven-and-a-half-hour doc 'O.J.: Made in America.'

On June 17, 1994, following a televised reading of a supposed suicide note by Kim Kardashian's dad and a slow-speed car chase up the 405 freeway that interrupted the NBA Finals, O.J. Simpson surrendered to police outside a Brentwood home. He was charged with the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

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It was an auspicious — and eerily prescient — start to "The Trial of the Century," in which Simpson, a former football hero, movie star, TV analyst and pitchman par excellence, was acquitted while the world watched. With cameras rolling in the courtroom and nascent 24-hour news networks more than willing to fill the time between gavel hits, the real-life legal drama spanned nearly 10 months, and an audience of 150 million tuned in to witness the verdict read live on the air. There's a pretty good chance you were one of them.

There's an even better chance you know the particulars and the key players, even if you can't quite recall the roles they played. In the two decades since a jury found Simpson not guilty, every aspect of his trial has been editorialized, hyperbolized or dramatized — just this year, FX aired a 10-episode miniseries about the case — to the point where the entire saga now seems impossibly momentous.

But was it really?

That's the first question posed to Ezra Edelman, director of ESPN Films' O.J.: Made in America — the exhaustive and, dare we say, definitive new documentary about Simpson, the trial and everything in between. And his answer will probably surprise you. "My initial response to that question is, 'God, I hope not,'" he says. "If that's one of the most impactful events of the past 50 years, that's kind of sad. That's not to diminish what happened, but the basis of that question speaks more to the rabid fascination of the thing itself."

If Edelman sounds like a guy who spent nearly two years interviewing subjects involved with the case, pouring over crime scene photos and parsing court transcripts, that's because he did. It wasn't a labor of love, but rather, a matter of necessity; in the hopes of stripping away the sensationalism surrounding the trial for his seven-and-a-half documentary on the Juice (which premieres on ABC on June 11th, then airs on ESPN from June 14th-18th), he had no other choice but to go back to the source material.

"This was a story that we had always considered and thought about, and in the original conversation around '30 for 30' we had always talked about: 'Is there new territory to explore?'" Connor Schell, Senior Vice President and Executive Producer at ESPN Films, says. "What was interesting to us is everything that led up to the case: the people, their experiences, the city, the relationship between the criminal justice system and the black community in L.A. And that's what we talked to Ezra about —  originally, we said the film would be five hours, but he went out and found all these elements of a story that I didn't even know existed."

"I had lived through it, and I know how much it's been picked over since, so I wondered what I could possibly add to the story?" Edelman sighs. "What else could I say? ESPN had said they wanted to do something bigger and ambitious, and that interested me. It seemed like the only way; you need the [large] canvas. I had things I wanted to explore and I had places I wanted to get to, so I just started putting the pieces together."

Those five hours eventually became nearly eight, precisely because those pieces kept fitting together. The glue that held them fast was the issue that has bedeviled America for centuries, and ultimately freed Simpson: race.

"People always wonder why so many people, mostly blacks, celebrated like that in the wake of the jury's decision. To me, it was 'How was it that so many white people were angry?'"

Like most aspects of the trial, it had become conveniently condensed over the intervening decades — we remember Johnnie Cochran proselytizing in the courtroom, or LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman using the N-word on tape. But the racial dynamics of the Simpson trial were every bit as complicated as they are today, and they shape Edelman's film. Like many black Americans in the first half of the 20th century, Simpson's family came to California looking to escape the still-simmering South, buoyed by promises of actual opportunities and a new life. What they found was anything but; still, young Orenthal James found a small manner of recompense on the football field, turning his star status at the University of Southern California into a lucrative side-career as a corporate pitchman. While his athletic abilities certainly made him marketable, what endeared him to advertisers was that he steadfastly refused to side with his fellow black athletes in the civil rights struggles of the Sixties. Simply put, he was safe.

"I knew about the notion of California being this 'Promised Land,'" Edelman says. "The goal was to align these two tracks, and rooting O.J.'s narrative in this fundamental black experience. You're telling the story of this guy who became privileged and separated himself from the rank and file of black Americans — but we're also telling the story of how millions of black Americas were invested in this trial in a way white Americans weren't, and identified with O.J. in a way that was ironic.

"One of the points of the film to me is, like, let's go back to the choice O.J. made when he went to USC, from a political standpoint," he continues. "He came to being in our culture as a star in the most substantial of times, and he rejected a group of athletes that were about engaging seriously with that substance. He was about himself above all else."

The irony that Simpson's defense team would cast him as a black figurehead targeted by the LAPD is apparent, and the jury's willingness to buy-in to a vast conspiracy has long mystified outsiders. But it shouldn't. Two years before the future Heisman trophy-winner arrived on the USC campus, the nearby neighborhood of Watts had erupted in riots, the end result of decades of restrictive residential segregation and oppressive treatment by police. It made national news, but it was hardly the first time tensions between the black community and the LAPD had boiled over — nor would it be the last. The jurors in the Simpson case, selected from Downtown Los Angeles, had long memories.

"If you only mention the outrage as a plot point, a quick thing — you don't get it. You need to feel it," Edelman says. "I knew about Watts riots, Rodney King, the L.A. riots — but I didn't know about Operation Hammer, Eula Love, Latasha Harlins. I was trying to find a way to properly convey the tension between the LAPD and the black community that had been around for decades. This didn't start with Rodney King; that was [just] the culmination.

"People always wonder why so many people, mostly blacks, celebrated like that in the wake of the jury's decision," he continues. "To me, it was 'How was it that so many white people were angry?' The feeling of victory, this continuing pattern of injustice — of course they celebrated. Yes, it was fucked up, and in some ways, the tragedy is that it speaks to how little they've had to celebrate. This was a victory – that was the tragedy to me. And I wanted to have white viewers understand that."

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In short, Made in America is as much about Simpson as it is the city of Los Angeles, making it unquestionably the most humanistic examination of the trial to date. By viewing the case through the fractured lens of race, Edelman's goal, in part, was to show all sides of the story and explore the racial divide that still exists in the city (and cities like it).

So far, it seems like audiences of every color have embraced the film for the staggering work it is. And so has ESPN Films, which took the unusual step of entering it into several documentary festivals, and giving it a one-week theatrical run last month in New York and Los Angeles, in order to qualify for Academy Award consideration.

"What became apparent and to others here when we watched it was that Ezra made a seven-and-a-half hour film, and we thought there would be power in trying to play it in different ways, where people can experience it in one sitting," Schell says. "And that's what the submission to Sundance and Tribeca film festivals and the very limited theatrical distribution is all about – getting people together in a room and having them experience it in that form. This is the most ambitious undertaking ESPN Films has embarked on, and frankly, the film deserves it."

As for Edelman, he says he's been amazed by the response, though he admits he's been too busy putting final touches on the film to truly pay attention. To him, the opportunity to re-tell the story of "The Trial of the Century" was reward enough. Now, he just wants to get some sleep.
"Oh, I'm currently working on a 20-hour doc," he laughs. "Not really. I'm kind of exhausted by this whole thing. My goal right now is just to take it easy for the summer."