If you thought parts of FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story were too bizarre to be believed, wait until you see ESPN's new 30 for 30 documentary, O.J.: Made in America. It seems odd to say that a 10-hour miniseries like the excellent American Crime Story only scratches the surface of the subject at hand, but Made in America, which clocks in at a mere 7.5 hours spread over five installments, takes a much deeper - and refreshingly different - dive into O.J. Simpson's Shakespearean rise and fall.
Made in America, which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and premieres Saturday (9/8c on ABC, with subsequent parts airing on ESPN), kicks off with a history lesson about the racial tensions in Los Angeles dating back to the Civil Rights era, in parallel with Simpson's upbringing and first exposure to stardom as a standout athlete at the University of Southern California.
American Crime Story gave us a nice primer about how race played a role in the Simpson verdict, but Made in America hammers the point home, with several experts (and one juror) saying point-blank that Simpson's actual guilt or innocence mattered little to many of those who supported him, or to those who handed down the final verdict.
"O.J. Simpson was a vessel," one civil rights activist freely admits, even as the documentary clearly explains that Simpson was not, in anyone's mind including his own, a symbol of black America until he was arrested and charged with a double murder.
In terms of Simpson's trial for killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, there are no new bombshells in Made in America that haven't already been dropped in American Crime Story (or, to a greater extent, The Run of His Life, Jeffrey Toobin's book on which the miniseries was based). Squeamish viewers should beware, however: the documentary includes incredibly graphic crime scene and autopsy photos of the victims' mutilated bodies.
But what makes Made in America fascinating, even though it's telling a story that's familiar (if not exhausted) is that this time it's being told straight from the mouths of the people who were involved. Director Ezra Edelman has obtained unprecedented access to many of the case's central figures, including lead prosecutor Marcia Clark, Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman, two jurors, several members of the defense team (minus Robert Shapiro), as well as relatives and friends of the victims. And some of the more eyebrow-raising events depicted in American Crime Story, such as the defense team redecorating Simpson's house ahead of a jury visit to make him seem "more black," are even more astonishing when presented in first-person documentary form.
One of Edelman's biggest feats is the candidness he draws out from Fuhrman, who arguably emerged from the trial a bigger villain than Simpson himself. The only thing more dubious than Fuhrman's halfhearted defense of infamous racist audio recordings ("I was fair on the street; there was a time that I was pretty violent, but that was long before I was in the police force") is his subsequent ploy for sympathy, explaining to the filmmakers how the trial ruined his life. But the person who comes off even worse than Fuhrman - a distinction if there ever was one - is DNA expert/defense consultant Barry Scheck, whose double-speak and general posturing make him a poster child for anyone who believes lawyers can not be trusted.
From the standpoint of an observer looking back 20 years, some of the most compelling commentary comes from L.A. Times journalist Jim Newton, who covered the trial and recalls how it sparked the rise of "infotainment" in the newsroom.
"We have lost sight of giving people the news in terms of its significance," Rosenstiel notes. "We're giving it to them in terms of what we think, simply, is the most titillating and the most ratings-grabbing."
In a surreal scene, a member of Simpson's latter-day entourage recalls Simpson glancing at the TV and noticing a then-unknown Kim Kardashian promoting her family's new reality show. "That's my goddaughter," the friend recalls Simpson saying, before predicting that the show "wouldn't last two weeks."
From beginning to end, O.J.: Made in America also paints a fuller picture of the man himself, despite the fact that Simpson was not interviewed for the documentary. In its fifth and final installment, the documentary takes us beyond the trial to Simpson's life afterwards, up to his 2007 arrest and conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping after an incident in a Las Vegas hotel room. (Clark's reaction to Simpson's second arrest might be the best moment in the entire documentary.)
Though Toobin's book painted a depressing, yet deeply satisfying, portrait of Simpson's post-acquittal life, describing him as a broke, washed-up superstar who was abandoned by most of his friends, Made in America has a different take. In the documentary, O.J. is seen living it up, partying with new groups of friends and fans, still making plenty of money from memorabilia sales, and finding a seemingly endless supply of women to sleep with him... Until he was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. It's sad on some level, sure, but a far cry from the image of a downtrodden "Juice" that readers of the book were left with.
Archival footage of Simpson and present-day interviews with his friends and family make his rise to fame and subsequent plummet not so much astonishing as it is truly tragic. For anyone who thinks there's nothing to be gained by yet another program about O.J. Simpson, think again. Rather than outshining American Crime Story, or vice-versa, O.J.: Made in America is a compelling addition to its (somewhat) fictionalized counterpart.
Part 1 of O.J.: Made in America premieres Saturday at 9/8c on ABC. Parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 will air Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and next Saturday at 9/8c on ESPN.