Orenthal James Simpson always seemed a singular figure. Hardly anybody got where he got or did what he did. Certainly nobody got away with it. But of course it isn’t just the man who fascinates: It’s the image. This he shares in common with every super-grandee and megastar, every tabloid luminary and TV VIP. It’s a condition of the vertex of fame. Celebrity so colossal tends to dwarf the human element — it tends to reduce the person to a personage. Gossip becomes gospel. Ordinary days become headlines. It’s a problem of dimensions: The popular imagination can’t accommodate real life on a superstar scale.
The O.J. image is distinguished by degree. The reach and intensity of his fame astonishes — the inescapability of it, before, during and after his crimes. Football players don’t often lead national ad campaigns. They don’t often graduate from stadium astroturf to Hollywood backlots, either. But O.J. kept ascending toward the stratosphere. And then kept going. Collegiate talent to gridiron record-breaker. Hertz mascot to mainstream idol. Hall of Fame inductee to courtroom cause célèbre. He graced countless magazine covers, beamed through talk shows and sportscasts and variety-hour specials, endorsed soda pops and sunglasses and razor blades. Then he dominated every column inch and news-hour in the world as the trial of the century went down. It’s hardly surprising that O.J. continues to intrigue. Few subjects seem as extraordinary.
Of course no amount of scrutiny is going to solve O.J. Simpson, just as no amount of contemplation is going to exhaust our interest in him. And the amount of both lately is prodigious. Here we face up to a further 464 minutes of analysis and inquiry, of archival footage studied and new interviews inspected: It’s called O.J.: Made in America, and it’s either a 7½-hour feature — as it has been presented at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Canada and will be screened theatrically in New York and Los Angeles — or a five-episode, 10-hour documentary miniseries, as it will air on ABC and ESPN in June. (In the era of binge-watching, the line dividing the cinematic from the televisual is rather porous. This is a lot to endure in one sitting — best to face the sprawl however you’d prefer.)
True crime in long form is the prevailing fashion. And while it won’t do to belabor a comparison between Made in America and last December's Netflix series Making a Murderer — the programs share little besides length and singlemindedness — there is a pointed resemblance: Both are afforded generosity by their scope. It’s more than three hours before Made in America arrives at the condo on Bundy Drive, where in the middle of the night of June 12, 1994, Nicole Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were murdered. Those three hours are put to intelligent, rewarding use. We’re plunged into the realm of college football — of O.J.’s precocity and gathering renown. We’re returned to history-making plays and the galactic leap into the NFL. We’re whisked back exhilaratingly to the triumph of O.J.’s world-record 2,000th yard.
And we’re re-familiarized with — or introduced to — the backdrop against which O.J.’s star would rise. The Watts riots, Black Power, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith: The ever-beloved young O.J., Made in America observes, strove to distance himself from the revolutionary sentiment of the late 1960s. His friends and confidants from the period testify that O.J. didn’t want to be thought of as “black.” “You think of Willie Mays as black,” O.J. wrote in a letter at the time. “But not Bill Cosby.” He aspired to the model of the latter.
Made in America proposes that O.J. succeeded: He was regarded in his celebrity as something like white. That aspiration was only abandoned — painfully — when his liberty depended on it. Eulia Love, Latasha Harlins and (especially) Rodney King rent Los Angeles asunder. It isn’t novel to suggest that the O.J. trial, in the wake of these injustices, had everything to do with race — that the trial became a referendum on the Los Angeles Police Department, on race relations in the city, on whether justice was possible for a black man in America. (A case likewise made, quite recently, by FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson.) Made in America takes the argument further still: O.J. had made himself white on his way up. He was made black again in court. The man became an emblem of discrimination in order for his legal victory to be symbolic.
Little here is conceived as revelation: No scoops are unveiled, no clinching argument is mounted. In fact, it’s taken for granted — wisely — that nobody believes O.J.’s innocence. But what Made in America does demonstrate is how we arrived at a verdict of innocence to begin with. O.J. was simply “a vessel,” a black civil-rights activist explains, in defense of his efforts to have O.J. exonerated: a vessel for dissent, in his case, but a vessel for any number of other things for any number of other people. Orenthal James Simpson was seized upon by the popular imagination as something way beyond an ordinary man. He was retribution for Rodney King. He was an exemplar of class privilege. He was proof of the bias festering in the LAPD. Mostly he was an image — an idea. Even today we’re still constructing and deconstructing it.