History · Racism · TV and Movies

OJ Simpson: Made in America. The documentary.

My wife and I just finished watching “OJ Simpson: Made in America”.  This is a documentary film about the rise and fall of OJ Simpson, produced and directed by Ezra Edelman for ESPN films.  It is a five part miniseries, each episode an hour and a half long.  The entire film last 8 hours, without ads. The film was released in 2016 and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film.

There was also a second, totally separate,  miniseries about OJ Simpson titled “The People v. OJ Simpson” that appeared in 2016.  This second miniseries was part of a larger series called American Crime Story and was produced by FX.

In my opinion, “OJ Simpson; Made in America” is by far the better production.   The main reason for this, in my opinion,  is that Made in America is what is called an unscripted or live program.

In TV lingo, all programing is either scripted or unscripted.  Scripted programs are basically movies.  They are either complete fiction or fiction lightly based on a true story.  At any rate they are heavily fictionalized and have actors playing all the characters.  Unscripted programs are what is usually called live TV.  Everyone plays himself, there are no actors, and every thing is filmed live.  Unscripted programs are programs like news, sports, live interviews, documentaries, or reality TV.  Unscripted programing is something like 65% of all TV programing.

“OJ: Made in America” is a montage of clips from TV news, interviews, commentaries and documentaries.  It is completely live.  Everyone plays himself.  There is no voice over except when some live interviewees words are used as voice-over for a news shot.  This approach gives the miniseries a strong feeling of reality and truth.  Often people give conflicting accounts of what happened or have radically differing options about what events mean.  But the overall tone is that when all is said and done, the viewer is going to have a pretty clear picture of what OJ Simpson’s life and times was actually all about.

This is of course more than a little deceptive because the movie is actually heavily scripted to present a certain point of view.  All the the news clips and interviews are very artfully edited and selected and ordered to present a certain point of view.  And there is a great musical score which plays over a lot of the action.  This of course happens in all documentaries.  But still, the overall impression is that these are the facts, this is what really happened, comes across very strongly.  You are seeing the real people, not actors and you are hearing what they actually said.  There is a very strong feeling that this is a documentary, not a makeup movie or a movie supposedly  based on reality but not really.

We see a lot of what the industry calls Peak TV these days.  Peak TV is like the series pioneered by HBO and what is now mass produced by Netflicks, and Amazon and Hulu and all the rest.  Peak TV is usually fresh, original, different, brilliantly written and non-cliched.  Audiences love this new Peak TV and networks are making billions on it.  Some of this Peak TV feels very realistic and that is exactly what it is supposed to do,  but everyone with half a mind knows these new movies are just better movies than we used to have,  but still fiction with characters played by actors.  This is what The People vs OJ Simpson was.  It was a fictional movie.  And I for one did not take it all that seriously.  It was OK, and it was interesting, but it was not great.  If definitely did not feel real.

And there was a second difference between to two OJ presentations.  The People vs OJ Simpson was presented as individual human beings operating on a personal level.  It was about the personal decisions of individual people: decisions made by individual lawyers on the defense team, on the prosecution and the decisions made by OJ and his friends and enemies.  Some decisions were good, many were bad and the movie presented these personal decisions as what drove the lives of the people involved.

On the other hand, “Made in America” is presented on a much larger scale.  Here, the scale is social and historical.  It is clear that in this depiction people’s lives are determined, not so much by their own personal decisions but by the large impersonal forces of history and society.  In this movie OJ Simpson’s life is clearly something  “Made in America.”  The movie shows that 200 years of slavery and Jim Crowe rule have embittered and angered and  enraged and destroyed many Americans, both black and white.  It becomes obvious that slavery is truly the original sin of America and it is not going to go away soon.

In “Made in America” it becomes more and more clear that what happened to OJ had a lot to do with historical and social forces, mainly white racism and the black reaction  to that racism.

Going back to the deliberate and stark realism that I think was one of the main driving forces in this movie:  I think that this strong attempt at realism in the movie,  made me see several things in ways that I have never quite seen them before.

I have, of course, always been very aware of racism in America and in LA and in the LAPD. But this documentary made me see racism in a whole new way.  Mainly in the second episode, the documentary screens long scenes of brutal clubbing and whipping and shooting  and injustice toward blacks by the LAPD over and over again.  The details of the Watts riots and the Rodney King beating and dozens of other incidents of police violence and brutality were something I had never seen in this closeup detail before.  The fear and anger and rage and finally resignation in the eyes and on the faces of hundreds and hundreds of black people was overwhelming and mind changing.

Another aspect of the extreme reality of this documentary was that the actual police, crime-scene photos of the bodies of Nicole and Ron Goldman were used.  Nothing was hidden or smoothed over or covered up.  These were absolutely horrifying pictures of huge puddles of blood, hair and bodies and clothes soaked in blood, shown in very mundane, matter of fact photos.  This was nothing like what we see in any of the thousands of murder mysteries or police procedurals or detective stories that constantly air on TV, with their sanitized scenes of murder.  This was just unbearable, stark, plain reality.  These scenes compared to the often joyful, beautiful, young, alive Nichole were a huge shock to me.  Real murder is nothing like TV or movie murder.  This was nothing like I’ve ever seen before.  It was just ugly, dirty, unbelievably horrible.

Another aspect of the movie that struck me was the early scenes of OJ as a beautiful young man and football player.  I’ve watched a lot of professional football lately and I’ve never seen a man move so beautifully and fluidly on the football field.  OJ was truly a tremenously good athlete and football player.  I was very moved by this great talent and by how OJ parlayed this talent into a huge personal success.  Part of this story is about the American Dream, about how in America anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and rise from proverty to success.  And OJ did this, beautifully and fully.  And then he was engulfed in the storm of racism in America that drove him to try to overcome his blackness at all costs.

And this attempt by OJ to leave his blackness behind is another main theme of the movie.   OJ was absolutely driven to leave his black self behind and become a white man.  And he did it, at great expense to himself.  At the peak of his popularity OJ convinced himself and almost everyone else that he was not black.  He was OJ, he was the Juice. He was not black at all.  He was light skinned and handsome and had the ability to make anyone like him in a very short period of time.   There are all kinds of stories of people sitting in restaurants and asking each other, “Why is OJ sitting over there with all those Niggers?”  Variations of this comment were overheard over and over again.

And so OJ surrounded himself with hundreds of white friends.  He collected thousands of pictures of himself in his house with all kinds of white people, personal friends and celebrities and whomever.  And then of course the final capstone was to marry a beautiful young white girl.  It appears he loved this white girl for how she could cement the success of his own whiteness.  It seems to me that it is significant that he actually married Nicole Brown, who was a very respected young woman, instead of  just having affairs with hundreds of white bimbos, which he could easily have done.  I think he married Nicole because he wanted the social status she gave him.  He married a beautiful white woman, had a family and children with her, bought a house in exclusive Brentwood with a large pool and yard were he could have parties for his friends.  He didn’t want just Nicole, he didn’t want her just as a sex object; he wanted the whole white, affluent, successful American life thing.  And for quite awhile he had it.

But, it also seems to me that he not only loved Nicole because she was white and because of what she could give him, but also he hated her because she was white, like the whole white world he pretended to love but actually had to have hated violently and viscerally.

And Nicole also seems to have represented how ephemeral his newly found whiteness was.  All it took was one glance at some guy or some mild flirtation by Nichole and the flimsiness of the whole structure was instantly apparent.  It could all go up in a puff of smoke, in an instant.  After all he was just a Nigger and Nicole could leave him in an instant.  This fact constantly terrified  and tormented him.

And so there was this terrible rage in OJ, just under the surface, rage that would boil over instantly at the slightest hint of unfaithfulness or rejection on the part of Nicole.  And OJ’s rage at Nicole did erupt regularly.  He beat Nicole savagely many, many times.  The police were constantly at their house on domestic violence calls.  There are dozens of pictures of a battered Nicole.

And then finally Nicole divorced him and then reconciled with him again, one more time, and then got beaten several more times.  And then Nicole was finally gone for good, and began dating other men.  And OJ would follow her and spy on her.  And then finally OJ had a final attack of rage and jealousy and feelings of loss of his treasured white wife and of his white life, and so he drove over to Nicol’s house, parked in the alley, walked up  the narrow walkway between the between Nichol’s  house and the neighbors  fence, rang the doorbell and killed Nicole instantly when she opened the door. He killed her so brutally, he practically cut her head off,  and he killed her friend Ron Goldman by slashing him practically to bits.

Now, none of this analysis of how OJ felt about Nicole and why he actually killed her are  explicitly spelled out in the documentary.   They are just my intuitions, after watching eight hours of OJ  trying to live with Nichol and trying to make his life work.  The reality may be entirely different, but it seems to me that his reasons for killing her must be something like this.  I spent the whole movie asking myself why OJ actually did kill Nichol and this is what I came up with.  It must have been done in a fit of rage or hate or something, he had beat her in other fits of rage multiple times.  And he was obsessed with trying to be a white man with a white wife.  This must have been some kind of a factor.  Let me know how you think I did.  Let me know if you think I got it wrong or kind of right or whatever.

Anyway, back to the OJ trial.

The irony of the whole trial story is that OJ wanted more than anything else to be a white man.  And he did it.  He succeeded more than in his wildest dreams.  And then he throws it all away by murdering Nicole and the only way he can be acquitted is by making himself as black as possible and then convincing the jury that he was a black man persecuted and framed by the white police and the white justice system just like they had framed every other black man for the last 200 years.

Johnny Cochran’s defense team very quickly saw that they had to make OJ as black as possible.  At one point Cochran convinced the judge that the whole jury had to be shown through OJ’s house so they could see how he lived.  Then Cochran quickly went to OJ’s house and took down all the hundreds of pictures of  white friends that filled OJ’s house and replaced them with pictures of black people.  He also replaced OJ’s white art with black and African art; much of this African art came from Johnny’s own house.  When the black jury walked through OJ’s house, they quickly saw that OJ was black, just like they were.

Cochran’s defense team did such a fine job of turning OJ into a black man being framed by the LAPD that the jury over looked the massive amount of data that proved positively and conclusively that OJ was guilty.  There was so much evidence of OJ’s guilt that Marcia Clark, the prosecutor of the case against OJ, said that she had never seen such a good case against any murder defendant in her entire career as a prosecuting attorney.  And she had prosecuted hundreds of murder cases.  The case against OJ was considered an absolute lock until Johnny Cochran played the race card.

When the jury acquitted OJ, several of the jurors and many journalists were convinced that  the jury had done so as payback for Rodney King.  And not only for the King beating but also for Watts and for 200 years of subjugation and injustice by the white man.  And the verdict was greeted by total joy and jubilation by the entire black population of LA and by much of black America.

On the other hand, whites were almost completely convinced that OJ was guilty and should have hung.  The divide between blacks and whites was almost total.  Over 75% of American blacks though OJ was innocent and over 75% of American whites though he was guilty.  If the black / white divide was not total before the trail, it certainly was after the trial.

There are many more points the documentary makes such as the the ease with which human opinions can be changed, or created, by employing emotional engineering tactics.  Or an analysis of the intriguing stylistic techniques employed by the movie producers, but enough is enough.  I’m sure everyone is tired of reading about OJ by now.

Suffice it to say that I thought OJ: Made in America was the best and most important thing I’ve seen on TV in many years.  I thought it was a masterpiece.

Fred Hanselmann

11954, Cracked Earth, Grasses, Buttes, Not Sharpened_DSC1088 copy
Badlands National Park in South Dakota



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