• ‘O.J.: Made in America’

    One of the dreamlike, sumptuously-composed aerial shots of Los Angeles that punctuate Ezra Edelman’s extraordinary, epic documentary – comprising, otherwise, straightforward interview footage and archive news reports – is of the HOLLYWOOD sign seen from directly above, bathed in strong sunlight; the familiar white letters are thus reduced to a barely-visible dotted line, replaced by a bold, black version of the name created by the letters’ shadows. It’s a subtle but powerful moment that effectively encapsulates the entirety of rise of O.J. Simpson, a working-class black man who inverted the usual expectations of his social and ethnic position to become a cultural icon who lived amongst the white elite. Of course, the most appalling crash then occurred, with two victims whose threads of life run – rightly – through this incredible work.

    The title conveys two meanings. Simpson was and is an outstanding example of a product, a good manufactured by a country whose very essence is that anyone can become anything or anyone by starting their journey within its bounds. And yet the very acclaim, wealth and power that helped drive that process for Simpson also played crucial roles in its disassembly twenty years later, even if some of the components of government and civil society that the Founding Fathers held so dear were found woefully wanting for their part.

    Edelman explores all of this and more from his very first scenes, which show Simpson’s college-level football success as the driver not just for a genuinely astonishing sports career but for the darker sides of Simpson’s personality, including what was to underscore much of the criticism he faced in those early years – that he was too ‘white’, both in terms of the friends he made and the causes he espoused (or failed to). Indeed the level of presumption displayed by various African-American community activists that Simpson ‘should’ play his part in the civil rights movement is astonishing, and is countered by Simpson himself explaining his belief that his race is irrelevant and that only his ability matters. This view and its alternate appear to be the key to understanding both the personal relationships that were to make and destroy him and his reactions to events in later life.

    With its five parts carefully divided to match the main passages of that life, the sensitivity of Edelman’s coverage of the young black footballer’s first introduction to the young blonde Nicole Brown at the end of the initial chapter signals that the reminder of the film will take the viewer through the entire, desperate story of their time together with appropriate restraint but no lack of emotion, and these suggestions prove to be exactly correct.

    By chance for British viewers, ‘LA 92’ (see my earlier post) provided a useful detailed background to the wider history of the struggle between Los Angeles’s mostly white police force and its mostly black clientele. Edelman of necessity is more restricted here but certainly covers this, concentrating on the bitterly ingrained prejudices that built up on both sides and how – just a few years later – each would inevitably view the murder of Brown and Ron Goldman and the trial of Simpson for those crimes through those same lenses.

    The degree of poison, bile and bitterness that is portrayed by many from both sides around this is astounding, as is the fact that very little appears to have been tempered by progression up the social scale to those in the courtroom. Thus, in a set of proceedings that would generate not one but several quotes and phrases that would live on in popular memory – The Dream Team, the trial of the century, the bloody glove, ‘if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit’ – we are presented with appalling errors by the police and prosecution, questionable decisions by the judge and manipulations of the Simpson family home to make him seem more acceptable to the predominantly black jurors. Almost no-one, then, emerges with much credibility, and much of the power of this, the core of the film, comes from the ability or otherwise of those participants interviewed to see their flaws from a distance of two decades.

    That every stage of the case, from Simpson’s infamous slow car ‘chase’ (whose actual end in a several-hour stand-off-cum-negotiation with a SWAT team is far less well known but here rendered as gripping as any thriller) to the portions of the trial where the jury was excluded occurred under the merciless glare of broadcast television – including mobile units, half a dozen helicopters and remote-controlled cameras in court – is obvious when seen like this. The corruption – in the true sense of the term – that this has engendered in the US judicial system is similarly plain, even before every bystander acquired a cell phone capable of becoming its own broadcasting studio, and must be the best proof ever needed that open justice is not the same thing at all as public justice.

    The honesty of the juror interviewed who admits acquitting Simpson as payback for the outcome of the trial of the police officers who beat Rodney King is, one supposes, laudable, but her morality must surely be questionable at best.

    Another quiet but powerful visual moment concludes the saga. With its stately pace, grasping crowds and white vehicle, the journey that took Simpson home after the trial becomes a remarkable inversion of that slow car pursuit. “People wanted to see O.J.’s last run,” explains one contributor.

    Inevitably what follows struggles somewhat to grip, with Simpson now wallowing in an end-of-career stew of hedonism and idiocy that, as noted in the film, appears like a parody of a gangster rapper’s lifestyle. Only when the film plays its final card, when a bizarre confrontation in a Las Vegas hotel room over Simpson memorabilia ends in a conviction and hefty prison term for armed robbery and more, do things return to the boil. Of course, one contributor claims the sentencing is revenge for the Brown/Goldman acquittal.

    And so it goes.

    Seven and a half hours seem too short, even whilst watching, for this awful tale. Each viewer will have their own flashes of emotion brought about by, perhaps, the childhood friend of Simpson who bluntly refused to be a witness for the defence, or the friend of Brown giving a simple speech at her funeral; the depths of Simpson’s narcissistic, self-delusional and arrogant personality are also left to the viewer to measure. Any sympathy, though, will be directed at the parents and families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, both of whom were, it is clear even with the regrettable decision by the BBC to blur the crucial crime scene images, killed in way that is the very definition of the term slaughter. Viewers will also form their own opinion on whether Simpson was responsible. Those who, like me, conclude that he was will be glad that Simpson has been in prison for 19 years and remains there today, until at least October this year.

    ‘O.J.: Made in America’ was produced and directed by Ezra Edelman for ESPN Films and is available on iPlayer; it was screened last week on BBC Four.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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