Made and Unmade in America: The OJ Simpson Epic
By Tom White
Twenty years seems to be the appropriate time frame for historical events to transform into history, and for historians, pundits, journalists and we the people to look back on how we’ve grown and changed, and how we haven’t; what we’ve learned, and what we haven’t learned.
In the mid-1990s, just on the cusp of the digital revolution, America was gripped by the so-called Trail of the Century. OJ Simpson, who nurtured and cultivated his iconic status well beyond his football days, was tried for and acquitted of the double murder of his ex-wife and her friend. This was the culmination of nearly 15 months that afforded us, through non-stop coverage, one of the strangest and most mesmerizing tales in the history of American television. It turned a murder trial into entertainment, and it made national celebrities out of local public servants.
But more so, the Trail became a referendum on the history of race relations in Los Angeles—and by extension, America, borne out by the sharply contrasted reactions to the verdict. In the decades since, the Trial became part of the ongoing conversation about race, justice and democracy.
Over the past nine months, we have seen a number of documentaries and docudramas about the Simpson saga, most notably, The People vs. OJ Simpson on Fx. And now, after a well-received festival tour to Sundance, Tribeca and Hot Docs, and an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run that garnered stellar reviews, OJ: Made in America makes its television premiere this Saturday on ABC, followed by installments in ESPN over the next five days.
OJ: Made in America is a sprawling epic, rich with subtext about what it is to be Black in America and what it is to be famous; about justice and the media; about America and Los Angeles; and above all, about history. Ezra Edelman, who has made award-winning documentaries for ESPN and HBO and produced the Academy Award-nominated Cutie and the Boxer, directed this nearly eight-hour work. We spoke with him by phone about history, race and how he structured the story of the rise and fall of OJ Simpson.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
This film is such a riveting and compelling allegory about so many things—fame, history of race in Los Angeles, race in America, what it means to be black. Looking back on the mid-1990s—the time of the trial and verdict, when you were in college—what kind of conversations did you have in college and with your parents about the subtext of this long saga?
Unfortunately, you’re going to be very underwhelmed. I do not recall following the trial at all. I remember watching when I was at my parents’ house during the summer when the Bronco chase happened. I have a vivid memory of a lot of people at my house to watch the Knicks play in the NBA finals, and then we turned on the TV and OJ was in a Bronco on the 405. That was crazy. There was a surreality to that then. It was like, I don't know what’s happening, but this is too weird to believe.
But what was interesting about it as we went forward, I really have no recollection of following the trial. During college, I just was doing other things. I lived abroad for the next semester and so a lot of the lead-up was definitely not something that I was following. I remember going home to my room and watching the verdict on October 3rd, ’95 by myself because I was curious. So obviously, I was engaged enough with it to do that, but I don’t really recall following it.
I'm pretty sure I never spoke to my parents about the OJ Simpson trial at all. That’s not strange because our conversations aren’t necessarily about everything that’s going on in the world all the time.
In the 20 years since the verdict, we’ve seen a lot of history-making events—we’ve seen the election and re-election of a black president, and we’ve witnessed Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and Chicago. With the former, it was a beacon of hope and progress that we could not have imagined happening in the ’60s, but with respect to the police brutality and murder cases, they have clear echoes back to the ’60s. So you question how much we really have progressed. Given that backdrop in history over the past 20 years, what themes were you thinking about that you wanted to explore with respect to the OJ Simpson trial?
In some ways, everything you’re saying. But I think it speaks to one of the points of what the film’s about, which is, This never stopped happening. It was like when we decided to pay attention based on a culmination of years and years of frustration that bubbled up in this one moment, then all of a sudden we pay attention—and then we move on to those things.
And so I think that documenting that history let people understand that, by the way, before the ’92 riots, there were the Watts riots in ’65. Then in those intermittent 27 years, there were all of these other things; it’s like, So the Watts riots happened, and then what happened? Did shit get better in in LA? Not really. Not at all. So if you can have a viewer emotionally engaged with that history, whether it’s a history that they never knew about, or it’s forgotten about, there needs to be a level of empathy for the struggle of a population of people to give you a greater understanding of what was happening during the OJ trial. I think everyone was so fixated on OJ—Did he do it? Did he not do it?—and I'm like, There are a lot bigger issues at play here.
You just try to explain that, but there’s also this history that I was interested in exploring. So the idea that you could be educated about our history while watching this was something that was very fundamental and purposeful in doing this. But everything you said from the beginning about the things I was interested in exploring are the things that are in the film: Issues of race, issues of celebrity, the criminal justice system, masculinity, the way that we celebrate our sports stars, which would obviously be framed under celebrity. The more I thought about this story, [the more] I came to it with the sense of, This is a huge story about race in America.
And it provides the right vehicle to have a conversation over a period of time that we don’t often get to do as filmmakers. When you really get into that trial and everything about OJ and everything else, it’s like you realize the story is in many ways about everything, and there’s an interconnectedness to all these issues. There was this confluence of factors that you need to engage in to understand the impact that OJ had on our culture and the impact that the trial had on our culture and why that came to be—let alone why the verdict was the way it was.
After the two-year process of researching the footage, the documents and archival material, as well as the people you interviewed, what emerged for you that was really surprising, that deepened your perspective on what you were exploring?
Sort of nothing and everything at the same time. It’s hard for me to get back to it based on what surprised me. I do think there was a consistency when you engage in conversation with people in LA, in terms of what are the galvanizing moments that people collectively point to. As part of this history that you have to explore in this narrative, you realize how deeply this history still lives within the community. It’s something I might have intellectually understood but not actually understood until you actually engage with people directly.
How did you go about structuring the narrative?
Even from the point when I started, I knew enough about OJ’s history, in terms of where he came from and that period of time when he was at USC and knowing what USC is and was in 1967 Los Angeles, and where USC was located geographically. I was fascinated by this juxtaposition of this white conservative school with wealthy students located right next to a neighborhood that had exploded in violence a year and a half before OJ got there. And so using those two places provided me with the starting point of the story on two different tracks.
That was always in my head because I knew I was going to try to explore who OJ was as a character as deeply as I could. But I also knew I wanted to tell that other story and because I had a natural starting point, it was just a question of figuring out a way to weave those narratives together. That happened during the editing process. But there was a chronology that I think helps in this case to give you a structure or framework to do that, and then you just start hoping you can figure out a way to actually find those transition points.
The eighth hour is one of the strongest ones. It’s a very troubling denouement, depicting OJ’s descent to depravity. He’s free, but he’s not free. He’s unmoored from the communities that really brought him to fame and celebrity, and he’s casting about. What resonated for you in that eighth hour?
Part of getting back to the initial concept, even though it started off as a five-hour concept, was to explore something that fundamentally I was interested in, but hadn’t seen: What happened to OJ after he was acquitted of murder in 1995? What does that do? Regardless of what you think of his guilt or innocence, he just went through this incredible ordeal, and if he’s guilty of murder then it’s like, What’s it like to get away with murder? And if he’s not, What’s it like to be acquitted of murder after you’ve been on TV every day standing accused of being the guy who brutally murdered your ex-wife and someone else and having your entire life, which was predicated upon the love that you got from people, disappear? All the places where you went to get that love before—all of a sudden, you’re not getting that anymore. What do you do? Where do you go? How do you live with yourself every day? That’s fascinating, and I hadn’t seen that. So that was really the operating principle.
By the way, no matter what I found, in terms of whatever happened, there’s a level to which that is such a unique circumstance. Everything that we’re talking about with OJ Simpson, everything about this story, is so crazy, but especially that idea as far as what was happening with OJ for the past 20 years. There’s no other human being in America that has experienced that. Nothing can be too weird, nothing can be too extreme, nothing can be too sad. It’s just the natural outgrowth of what happened over those 20 years.
And that ended up the way it did in the farcical episode in Vegas. It’s in some ways a fitting, surreal end to this story, and it also befits the media celebrity narrative in many ways, in terms of how our culture has devolved. It ends up in Vegas, of all places, with surveillance camera footage in not the nicest hotel. Not to denigrate the Palace Station but it was fitting in many ways. But people have responded to it because it feels new and it’s so divorced from a history that we chronicle in the first two parts, where there is a familiarity.
And I think that there is zero familiarity that anybody has to that last part of this show. We find who he was at that point in time, what he went through and how he ended up in jail, and that’s fascinating, objectively fascinating. And we were obviously lucky to be able to chronicle it the way we did in terms of footage and everything else.
It is a bizarre mirror image of the very beginning, where there is that famous quote, whether attributed or not, of him saying, “I’m not black, I’m OJ.” And then he ends up being vilified by the white community that he had worked so hard to gain entrée to, and then seeking out the black community, but not the most esteemed element of the black community, and finally ending up as another statistic: an African-American male in jail.
That’s why you can’t make up this story. It’s too crazy to make up, and there are too many ironies in it. People have asked me a lot about that notion of “I'm not Black, I'm OJ.” Like, “Did he really not believe he was Black?” Yeah, he believed he was Black, and he made choices, though, not to be defined by this Blackness, and he probably made choices to the extreme that earned him the scorn he did from certain segments of the population over the course of his life. Having said that, I do believe in the end, this whole notion of getting back to that quote – “I'm not Black, I’m OJ”—there is a distinct OJ-ness to his existence where it’s almost like, Yeah, he is overwhelmingly OJ, more than he is anything.
It’s almost like he achieved that goal of being uniquely OJ. And that sort of exceptionalism—I think he believed in that OJ exceptionalism. How he arrived at that point is a good question in terms of, Did he always believe that, or is this the outgrowth of being that charming and that successful and that talented and that handsome that at a certain point you do believe you are that special, and you do believe the rules are different for you?
You didn’t interview OJ, I assume for legal reasons since he’s in jail, but it seems to me it didn’t matter. There’s so much footage and we learn so much from your interview subjects that you almost didn’t need to interview him. Did you consider interviewing OJ?
Sure. But I knew that this project wasn’t going to live or die on whether OJ participated. I also knew that OJ is in jail and has never done an interview since he’s been in jail. So it would have been a little bit hubristic of me to think, “Oh yeah, I'm doing this now and he’s going to want to talk to me.” And I didn’t approach him in that way. As you said, there’s plenty of footage of OJ in the world where he can speak for himself. So I knew that I would be able to, in some form, portray OJ meaningfully as a character, even if he didn’t sit down for an interview. Having said that, after I had done almost all the interviews, I did write him a letter and I requested an interview from him. I never heard anything back, and that was that.
You did manage to gain access to and interviews from a lot of people—both sides of the trial aisle, journalists, pundits, friends of OJ. How did you present the project to them?
It took a lot of persistence. These characters, by and large, especially those that participated in the trial, had built up this wall around them, over the course of the last 20 years. Every anniversary, they get all these calls from the quote-unquote media to interview them. It’s a story that doesn’t go away, and they’re tired of it. They want to be left alone; they don’t want to revisit this thing. So that was the hardest thing in terms of gaining entrée.
I think once we were able to have a conversation with them, in person especially, we tried to break down what we were trying to do and let people know that this isn’t a regurgitation of the trial; this is a much bigger scope—it’s a historical document. It’s a history that you are a part of, and this is the way that we’re thinking about this. This is a very sober discussion that we’re trying to have, not a sensationalist one that so many of the stories have been. Once they talked to us, they realized that we were kind of different.
Having said that, it was still very hard. It felt like a mini-battle with everybody to get them to trust us, to sit and talk, and I don’t take that lightly. I'm pretty humbled by the fact that people did trust us enough and so open with us in these interviews because that’s what the film is, by and large. Regardless of how it’s structured, regardless of how good the footage is, the backbone of the film is the 72 interviews we did and the 66 who appear on camera. These people were willing to be forthcoming and honest. To this day, I can't appreciate those people enough for doing that.
You are the son of two very prominent and respected individuals in the fields of civil rights and law—[Children’s Defense Fund founder] Marian Wright Edelman and [Georgetown University Law Professor] Peter Edelman. How did the knowledge and wisdom they passed on to you inform your filmmaking process with respect to OJ Made in America?
You know, there’s a level to which I think growing up in my household, there are lessons that are absorbed, whether they’re spoken or not, in terms of two people who have committed their lives to social justice. So there wasn’t anything that my parents said to me in the course of doing this; I don’t talk to my parents about that kind of stuff, but clearly who I am is very much informed by who they are. And that’s what also, interestingly enough, what this story’s about, right? It’s about our world views and what we bring to this story.
So what I bring to this story, based on being the son of my parents, is that I looked at things through that historical lens. I looked at it through the lens of the injustice that the community suffers through decades and decades at the hands of the police. I looked at it through that lens and maybe I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in a different household.
You are also biracial. Has being bi-racial served in this project to give you a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of race and race relations?
It’s sort of an impossible thing for me to answer, in terms of I am who I am, so I acknowledge that me being Black, me being bi-racial, I'm sure of course informs the way I thought about this story and the way I engage people. I can't, for instance, answer how people engaged me based on who I am and the way I look, the way I sound; that’s a different interesting question. I think that the simple thing would be that in terms of this story, obviously one has a different perspective growing up in this century as a person of color, than if you’re not. And so that certainly informed the way I engaged the story as a whole and obviously it was helpful in terms of the execution of it. To what extent or how specifically, it’s kind of impossible to answer.
You and your producers have been showcasing the film in theaters and will be premiering it on TV. These are different kinds of engagement for viewers. Do you see the film as an eight-hour experience or an episodic experience, where we can grow with each evening?
When ESPN initially approached me about doing this, they said, “We’re interested in doing a five-hour film about it.” I was less interested in doing a five-hour film about OJ and I was even less interested in doing five one-hour episodes about OJ, or five one-hours about anyone. And so for me, my concept from the get-go was, I'm making one long movie. I understand that it’s a big ask for people to absorb that in one sitting. However, I built the story as one movie, as one long story.
You know, because it is loaded with so much, I do not begrudge anyone from watching it in one sitting. And there have been people who have watched it in one sitting and come to see it in theaters, which, I do think for any filmmaker, is how you want your work to be absorbed. But I also know a lot of people who watched each part in five consecutive nights. So for me, that’s how people absorb that, based on time or based on sort of personal preference. That’s fine.
I don’t necessarily look at it as episodic though. I do look at it as five parts of one movie. And the fact is, it’s debuting on television on Saturday, and there’s a little bit of an irony in that this isn’t made for television. This isn’t made to be watched with commercials and censorship, but that’s something I can’t control. I want people to watch this in the purest form possible, in the theater, but certainly watching it straight through without any censorship.
So for me, I want as many people to watch the film as possible, and I understand that television is the best vehicle for that. Having said that, it would be wonderful if people could at least absorb the movie without commercial interruptions and without censorship. But I know you don’t get everything you want in this world.
And it’s not to say I don’t appreciate the platform and appreciate everything ESPN has done because obviously, this wouldn’t be in existence, let alone be the link that it is, if it weren’t for how fluid they were during the course of this whole thing in terms of how they were going to program it. They didn’t balk at all as it got longer. They just said, “Do what you need to do to make the story what it should be. Be it length, be it content, what have you, and we’ll figure out.” And so in that way I couldn’t ask for a better partner.
You have showcased it at Sundance, Tribeca and Hot Docs. What were the reactions from the audiences?
Well, my point is borne out by this about sitting in those theaters, especially at Tribeca and at Hot Docs and the way it was curated, which was, first, two parts, with a 15-to-30-minute break; next, two parts, 15-to-30-minute break; and then watch the end. It was amazing how absorbed people were and how much they wanted to talk about it during the breaks. There was a communal experience to this. I wouldn’t say it surprised me, but it was great to witness through the whole. I had very real questions about how a Canadian audience would respond; their response was great.
Everyone after eight hours, stayed there for Q&A. I was there with [former LA District Attorney] Gil Garcetti and [sports journalist] Robert Lipsyte, and people could have stayed for another hour. No one got up, and that’s very humbling. So that gets back to the whole notion of, I do get it’s super long. I do get that’s it’s hard to get people to go anywhere, let alone for eight -and- a-half hours and then have them stay. So I found their reactions to be overwhelming. It was great. And that also only informed how much I realized that my instinct of this being one film was borne out, by how audiences engaged it at festivals.
OJ: Made in America airs June 11 on ABC, then June 14, 15, 17 and 18 on ESPN.
Tom White is editor of Documentary/documentary.org.