The Many Tragedies Of O.J. Simpson: A Conversation With "O.J.: Made In America" Director Ezra Edelman
O.J. Simpson's story is very well known. In the sprawling, seven-and-a-half hour ESPN documentary "O.J.: Made In America" Ezra Edelman aims to put it all in context.
Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The thought of spending a little over seven-and-a-half hours with O.J. Simpson doesn't sound that appealing on its face. On the heels of FX's critically acclaimed The People v. O.J. Simpson miniseries earlier this year, it also seems unnecessary. All of which makes it that much more surprising how good—how insightful, clear-eyed, watchable, and smart—ESPN's sprawling documentary O.J.: Made in America is. The five-part documentary will air on ABC and ESPN starting June 11 in the United States, and on CTV in Canada.
Made in America is the definitive historical document on O.J., from his rise as a college football star at USC to becoming an NFL record-setter in Buffalo, to his role as a corporate spokesman and Hollywood actor, and then onto his relationship with Nicole Brown, the woman he was accused of murdering. ESPN gave filmmaker Ezra Edelman space to explore not just O.J.'s life and career but the context in which that story unfolded. A wide-ranging collection of interview subjects and some haunting and haunted archival footage puts things in perspective, and Edelman takes the time to help viewers understand the Los Angeles Police Department's long-running strained relationships with the black community, while also laying out O.J.'s own complicated view of race, and how he distanced himself from the black community and activism as he became a celebrity.
By the time the film reaches the murder trial that captivated and divided the country, that familiar cultural moment has been rendered both richer and stranger than would have seemed possible. Made in America doesn't present a case for O.J.'s guilt or innocence—by that point in the film, it seems almost incidental to the broader story of where O.J. came from, how he became what he became, and why.
VICE Sports: Made in America explores so much more than just the life of O.J. What was the process of figuring out how to structure a film that's over seven and a half hours long?
Ezra Edelman: I knew from the get-go I wanted to delve into the history of Los Angeles, the L.A.P.D., and to do a deeper dive into O.J. as a character. The process was just reading as much as I could get my hands on, reading every book that existed, but not necessarily every book that was written about the murder trial, since everyone wrote a book after the trial. And then to start making those connections, to understand those two years in 1994 and 1995, and to shine a light by going backwards in the timeline, and also tell the story of what happened to O.J. after the murder trial. I knew I wanted to carry a story that was going to exist alongside O.J.'s trajectory chronologically, and ultimately carry it all the way through to him being in jail today.
How old were you when the murder trial happened?
I was in college, and like everyone else, I have a distinct memory of the Bronco chase and watching the verdict on my couch.
At the time, did you immerse yourself in the trial as many people did across the country?
To be honest, I have very little recollection of following the case at all. I was abroad for a semester during that period. In college, we're just so focused on ourselves. I didn't follow it that closely.
Were you aware of O.J.'s stature when he was at USC, and then his record-setting NFL career and subsequent acting career in Hollywood?
I'm old enough to have seen him at the tail end of his football career. I certainly grew up with him as a prominent cultural figure primarily through the Hertz ad. I knew about O.J at USC and what he represented at the time, and how he became the first black corporate pitchman as far as athletes go. I was fascinated with how he went from this great football player at USC to being this guy on national television with endorsements before he even played in the NFL. I wanted to tell a story that existed in the mid-60s, along with the tension in L.A. at the time that culminated with the Watts riots. These were things that were very connected to the murder trial 30 years later.
O.J. seemed to always want to remove race as part of the discussion in how people saw him. He has that famous quote, "I'm not black. I'm O.J." As a black athlete who carved out his own space, do you see him as a trailblazer?
There's no doubt he was a pioneer. There's no doubt O.J. begat Michael Jordan who begat Tiger Woods in terms of the non-political celebrity black athlete as pitchman. We famously remember Jordan during the 1988 Senate Race in North Carolina between Jesse Helms, a notorious Conservative, and Harvey Gantt, who was a black Democrat. There was all this pressure for Jordan to endorse Gantt and he famously responded, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."
To me, that started with O.J., in terms of pivoting from the militant, political black athlete at the time, be it Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Lew Alcindor, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, just in terms of saying, "No, I'm representing me. I'm going to strive to be the guy I want to be, to be rich and famous, and I'm not going to be held down because of my race." That was a different trajectory, whether it was good or bad. But yes, I do believe he was a trailblazer.
In disconnecting himself from the black community, there's also a sense in the film that he lost a bit of his identity. To say O.J. developed an alter ego might be going too far, but it does seem like he always saw himself very differently, from a perspective that was egotistic and self-involved.
There's definitely a case to be made that he had some real narcissistic tendencies, that it was all about O.J. That's what's interesting if you're talking about how he separated himself in terms of black and white. But I also believe O.J. also separated himself in terms of "I'm O.J. and everyone else is who they are."
You did an interview earlier this year talking about how there were certain people—Kato Kaelin was the example you used—that you weren't interested in interviewing. So even though you made this film of such broad scope, there were aspects to the story that you weren't interested in telling.
That's right. I wanted to offer something that was an antidote to the tabloid nature of how the trial was covered. As sensational as the stories were during the trial, I think there was a profound substance that was the backdrop to all of this. That's what I was more interested in exploring, more than talking about characters who became famous just because of their proximity to the trial. And I don't mean to denigrate Kato or anyone else, but that just wasn't my interest.
The extended segment where prosecutor Bill Hodgman walks through exactly what may have happened at the murder scene of Nicole and Ron Goldman interspersed with closeups of the crime scene photos stuck with me, in that it really drove him the brutally of the crime. Was there a specific focus to say, "despite the spectacle of the trial, let's not forget that two people were brutally murdered and that's why O.J. is on trial?"
Absolutely, 100 percent. Despite all the spectacle, two people were brutally murdered and that's something that people shouldn't forget. I have no interest in talking about O.J.'s innocence or guilt, but you get the sense of how I feel if you watch the film. There's a level, as a filmmaker, at which you're engaging O.J. as a character. I really want you to watch and see the crime scene photos and understand exactly what took place and get a sense of the brutality of the actions. That might have people look at O.J. in a different light going forward.
You spoke with two jurors from the murder trial, one of them admitted the acquittal was payback for the Rodney King trial. O.J. became the person for blacks to use the trial as a referendum on the unfairness of the justice system directed towards them. Decades later, there seems to be plenty of second-guessing and even regret at their decision.
I know Carrie (one of the jurors) regrets it. It was important to have two black female jurors to show that there was not this monolithic thinking about the trial. Carrie was an older juror, and spoke to her desire to vote because of an emotional connection to the bigger issues at hand.
But you also had Yolanda (another juror), who was in her 20s when the trial took place, and she's incredibly thoughtful in the film. She remembers and details of the case thoroughly, and came to the conclusion of voting to acquit O.J. based on her feelings the prosecution did not prove O.J.'s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof was on the prosecution in a case like this.
So the idea of, oh look there were eight black women on the jury, of course they're going to vote this way because of the history and because they wanted to even the score—it's like, no, it's not the way they all thought, and Yolanda is proof of that. That's an important takeaway. I want people to realize everything is much more complicated than we left it in 1995. There's no one way of summing up what happened in terms of the acquittal. I think people need to engage that.
Would you say there are plenty of tragic elements in O.J.'s story?
The whole story is a tragedy, not just O.J. himself. The whole story surrounding a community's investment in him during the trial and the celebration of his acquittal. I completely understand why they were celebrating, and I hope people further understand and empathize with a group of people who were legitimately overjoyed. Having said that, the idea that they were overjoyed at the verdict merely spoke to how much injustice existed in this system for decades, if not centuries before.
That's the tragedy, when you actually examine who O.J. is, the choices he made, and he ends up being this symbolic character for people to invest their frustration historically into, I think that's the tragedy. I think O.J.'s story is a tragedy, too, in terms of a guy who was so ambitious, who really enjoyed the fruits of the American dream that he rightfully earned, and was co-opted and destroyed at the same time. That's a tragic story.
Why do you think there's so much interest in O.J. story even today?
I keep coming back to the fact there's this lack of resolution. There's this huge gap between what everyone thinks and what he has said, or not said. The majority of Americans believe O.J. is guilty but here's a guy who has asserted his innocence vociferously for the last 20 years. There's this sense that no one really knows the truth, and that keeps people coming back to the story. The trial is about so much. I think anytime something occupies this much cultural space we overdose on it, we need to put it down, but it's something that's still relevant today from a thematic perspective and for our culture. A lot of the things people discussed at the time are still relevant today. On that level, I'm not surprised we're still as interested in revisiting the trial and engaging in the same conversations today. I couldn't have anticipated this rabidly successful television series about the trial. Our film exists through a different lens, even if we're also covering the trial itself.
Since you brought it up, I'm curious how far were you in the filmmaking process when you found out about the FX show?
We were in the middle of doing it. To be honest, there was a lot of other things being done from a non-fiction standpoint that I was more concerned and nervous about, because it was more within the same territory. I couldn't have expected the show was going to be this successful and popular. It's like, "not great, but okay, back to work."
In some ways, the popularity of The People v. O.J. Simpson probably renewed interest in the subject matter and will make people want to watch this documentary.
That's the thing, I don't know. That might be the case.
Have you watched the FX show?
Do you plan to?
Maybe in a year after I'm completely done with this. I have no issue with the show, and I don't want to denigrate it. I'm sure I'll enjoy it. It's just one of those uncomfortable things where you work so hard on something and it's a little weird, where you say things like, I wish I could dramatize something, or flesh the characters out that I can't do in my medium that they can do [in theirs]. That's where the frustrations come in. From a storytelling perspective there are things they can do that I can't. So I think putting this to bed, and hoping people positively engage with the documentary, and knowing there's a place in the world for it, after that—I can sit down and enjoy the show.
The post-murder trial portion of the documentary, from O.J. trying to acclimate himself back into a community that has shunned him, and eventually his arrest in Las Vegas that put him in jail, it all feels like such a stark juxtaposition with the start of the film, of the rising star at USC. The entire epilogue is just bizarre.
Bizarre is right. It's a story that's so serious for so long, and it culminates in this objectively farcical episode. It speaks to the surreality of the whole thing. In some ways, considering the murder trial was covered, it's a fitting end to the story of how we evolved or devolved culturally.
If you had a chance to interview O.J., what would you ask him?
I don't have a good answer. But my question would be: what did you think of the movie?
Well, you did mention he has access to cable television in prison, so he might watch it right?
It's possible he'll watch. Who knows?
Having spent this much time on a subject matter, did the process change your mind or open your eyes to a particular aspect of O.J.'s story?
No. I would like the whole of the film to be stronger than the sum of its parts. I want to believe there's a necessity to the length of it. I think you need to bathe in the totality of the story, both from O.J. and everything surrounding him. Hopefully it justifies its length. For me, there wasn't something that I really held onto as more revelatory. It's just the interconnectedness of everything, both character-wise and themes. It's one big stew. You really can't reduce it down to this one overarching thing. It's everything.