By: Jason Smith ~Staff Writer~
Around the time I moved to Los Angeles in 1997, O.J. Simpson was in the middle of a civil trial for the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown. One day I managed to go down to the courthouse to partake in the frenzy. It was less of a circus than the murder trial mainly because it took place at the Santa Monica Courthouse. O.J. at that time was already less than the towering figure he was on television. In some way, he seemed beaten down, hunched over. For a moment, I got to witness history.
Later, O.J. would get caught in a memorabilia scandal that involved him robbing people in a hotel room in Las Vegas. That case finally put Simpson behind bars. For many people, that was the moment of justice for the crime O.J. was accused of committing many years earlier. This was the swift arm of the law coming down hard on an alleged murderer, eventually.
In the opening scene of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, Simpson is testifying before a correctional board in Texas when he is asked about the first time he was arrested at the age of 46. That subtle reference was to what would later be billed the “Trial of the Century.”
The story takes place in Los Angeles, a city divided earlier by the Rodney King trial. This is the story of an American athlete filled with ego brought down by hubris and addiction to his own celebrity.
The documentary starts from O.J.’s days as a USC recruit and his famous “run” and is spelled out with talking head interviews with friends, family, lawyers and police officers. Interspersed with O.J.’s big year at USC are the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., none of which appear to have any impact on the alumni at USC. It was all about O.J.’s breakout season that led to his eventual NFL career.
In the NFL, O.J. longed for the celebrity he had at USC. He morphed from a running back into a pitch man. O.J. had the ability to cross racial lines. Everybody loved “the Juice.” He worked hard to make it in the entertainment industry after his career in football landed him in the Hall of Fame. Later he did sideline reporting and acted in films like Capricorn One. Hollywood loved O.J. even though he was a serviceable actor at best. In the entirety of his acting career, he’s best remembered for running in Hertz commercials and playing Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies.
Simpson divorced his college sweetheart wife in pursuit of Nicole Brown, and here the events take a dark turn. There are multiple stories of his maltreatment of her.
For community service, to atone for spousal abuse, he played golf in a tournament he staged. The night of the murders is chillingly retold with police testimony and photographs. The famous Bronco chase shows the bad side of O.J.’s celebrity as Al Cowlings slowly drove him to his Rockingham home. This all culminates with his arrest.
The rest is history. The documentary doesn’t have much in the way of new stories, just more insightful reflection on the moments everybody knows.
What makes it compulsory viewing is how masterfully the narrative unfolds. The beautiful aerial shots of Los Angeles mixed in with audio and visual highlights from Simpson’s life really show how O.J. is both the good and bad parts of America.
Throughout the film, what is apparent is nobody loves O.J. like O.J. loves himself. The father, athlete, actor, golfer and convict’s story unfolds in a tragic tale about how the power that accompanies fame is a terrible drug and freedom from the addiction is the inevitable downfall from it.