It's a story so absurd that, more than 20 years later, it still doesn't seem real. OJ Simpson, sitting in prison for 33 years on kidnapping and robbery charges but acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend, waiter Ron Goldman. OJ, swooping from the heights of sports and film stardom to incarceration. The closest imaginary parallel to Simpson's incredible rise and fall would be... I don't know, David Beckham being accused of killing two people, then later going to prison for a completely different crime altogether.
Most of us know Simpson's story. The televised trial was broadcast around the world, after all, rendering the idea of revisiting the story today even sillier. With that much live footage of the so-called "trial of the century" – from the prosecution's disastrous bid to have Simpson try on the gloves worn during the double murder to cross-examination focused more on LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman's history of calling black people niggers than the crime scene's DNA evidence – it seems there's nothing left to say.
But that changes when you watch OJ: Made in America, a new five-part TV documentary that digs into Simpson's personal narrative and pulls out a fascinating, universal tale. This thing is about eight hours long, but rattles through at a pace that marks it out as a remarkable piece of storytelling. Made In America not only catalogues Simpson's life but how his trial encapsulated so much about American society. Director-producer Ezra Edelman tackles race, violence, power and the cult of celebrity, sitting down to interview everyone from Simpson's friends and two jurors from the murder case to the lawyers tasked with getting Simpson off and family members of both Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.
Edelman's films were shown on BT Sport this past week and will be broadcast on BT Sport ESPN next week, so will probably be seen by about 50,000 people – a shame, really. The five parts tell a masterful story of police brutality, racial inequality and an athlete at the centre of it all who thought he could transcend race until the day his encounter with the criminal justice system made him a figurehead for the African American community. What the show does so well is fill in the gaps of knowledge you didn't realise you had or would have cared about.
Part one introduces OJ as an incomparable young athlete; the best up-and-coming running back in university-level American football at the time. "He ran through them like foreign water through a tourist," says sociologist Dr Harry Edwards in the show, remembering the speed and agility of Simpson's breaks down the edge of the field. Edelman juxtaposes this rise to prominence in the 1960s with the civil rights movement that Simpson seemed to so gleefully ignore. "I'm not black, I'm OJ" he was once quoted as saying, in a statement that's been repeated ever since and sets up the story to come.
You start off learning of the horrors of police brutality against LA's black population at the time, with tensions coming to a head at the 1965 Watts riots in part two. This, Edelman tells me, was a very specific springboard. "The parallels of OJ going to USC about a year or so after those riots, that's where I started," he says, speaking from New York. "Insofar as I was going to explain the relationship between the black community and LAPD that led us to the Watts riots, I was going to explain OJ's first 18 to 20 years of life in San Francisco. But I really used that 1965 date as a jumping off point."
Only in part three do we get to the murders, by way of Simpson leaving his first wife Marguerite – a black woman whom Edelman never tracked down to interview – for Nicole Brown. By the time we've whizzed through jury selection, then into the criminal trial and eventual acquittal in part four, you could almost forget that you're watching a man teetering on the edge of his downfall. The best is saved for last, in part five. We see OJ's downward spiral in the years after he lost his civil trial to Goldman and Brown's families – to the tune of $33 million owed in damages – and before he ended up in Nevada's Lovelock Correctional Centre in 2008 for his part in a confused armed robbery in a Vegas hotel.
Edelman manages to fit about seven different mini-documentaries into one factual show without losing his central focus. By the time you're walked through OJ's history of physically abusing Nicole, and the eight times she called police officers to their house before asking not to press charges against OJ, the stage is set. Besides a few minor revelations – that Simpson's father had sex with men, for example, and OJ later harboured a homophobic rage only unlocked when he'd find his children or partner around gay men – most of the story is in the public domain. And just months ago, Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story: the People vs OJ Simpson – which Edelman originally thought might "use up the OJ capital" – was broadcast on both US and UK television. But rather than exhaust the subject, that program seems only to lay a foundation for Made in America.
Ultimately, Simpson's unknowable character, his slippery personality, is what makes this story so compelling. He's so many people at once: a hero, a father, a cheating husband, the family-friendly face of the Hertz ads, star of an awful post-acquittal prank show. To many, a murderer. To the jury that acquitted him, figurative payback for 1991's racial injustices, from the horrific beating of Rodney King to the execution of black teenager Latasha Rawlins by a Korean shopkeeper who was sentenced just to community service.
I put Simpson's strangely elusive nature to Edelman, asking how he'd come to understand the one key player he didn't get to interview. "I don't think I ever fell into a trap of thinking I could understand who he was," he says. "What I have to go on is the footage, and these first-person recollections from people who spent all this time around him. When I think about OJ I think you're correct, in that he's impossible to know."
Weirdly, you get the feeling that the story isn't over yet, when the films end. Yes, Simpson is in prison, but he's up for parole next year. And knowing his obsession with fame, with being loved, he may find his way back to our screens again. "It wouldn't surprise me if this story had more chapters," Edelman says. "He'll get out of jail sometime, and I'm sure there'll be a lot of interest surrounding that, with people wanting to hear from him for the first time in years. Nothing would surprise me, at this point, when it comes to OJ."
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