'And More Importantly For Your Impeccable Character': O.J.: Made In America Begins Quite A Run
Yes, 30 For 30's O.J. Simpson event is 'really that good.' Why you should turn on the Juice.
My father has a particular laugh for things that amaze and delight him. He's not a terribly demonstrative person, my father, but you learn to read the signs, and that laugh -- sometimes paired with a "well what do you know about that" -- isn't used on hilarity. It means he's seen or heard something special, a big home run or a crazy tennis point or an elegant deke at cards, or a toddler finally nailing all the consonants in "Grandpa." I heard it the day Dwight Gooden jerked one to short right and made me fall in love with baseball. I heard it the day I got into university. And I heard it last night, coming out of myself, as another segment of film of O.J. Simpson eluding defenders unspooled on my TV in the middle of O.J.: Made In America.
Let's back up a bit: Made In America is, so far, as compelling and well built as you've heard from other critics. I watched with y'all last night, so I haven't had the immersive experience of the entire "event" and I can't give you a long view of it in its entirety. I can tell you, having spent part of the day preceding the Made In America premiere with lesser O.J. programming from such luminaries as The National Enquirer Investigates and Autopsy: The Last Hours Of..., that I welcomed a more ambitious take on Simpson, beyond the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, with a wider and more impressive range of interviewees and a better selection of photos and film, despite concerns that it could not possibly live up to the raves I'd read. A couple of the talking-heads repeated verbatim stories they'd told to TNEI, or Made In America recycled the footage, which was disconcerting, but relatively minor, because Made In America isn't trying to prove or disprove anything about the murders, at least in "Part 1." It's trying to show us, I think, how we got here, "here" being the poisonous circus of the criminal trial in 1995.
It's trying to tell us, I think, that maybe we were always "here," with O.J., and that we've never left.
Made In America begins with a startler, B-roll of the Nevada prison where Simpson is currently incarcerated followed by footage of (I assume) a parole hearing. Simpson describes his various work details before a board member notes tonelessly, "I see here that in 1994 you were arrested at the age of 46." My husband and I, in unison: "Is...she fucking kidding?" We go from Simpson floundering in the face of this apparent Amish space alien's "but how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln"-style investigation of his arrest record back to Simpson owning the world at USC, and then to his time with the Bills, and then back to his childhood, his teenage bullshit artistry. It's very clever of director Ezra Edelman to order Simpson's story in that way; Edelman also digs into the Watts riots, LAPD brutality, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor, to give us a context for Simpson's particular and unique relationship to race and branding in the late '60s and early '70s, to wit: Simpson did not want a relationship to the former, the better to cultivate a happy marriage to the latter. Simpson seems to acknowledge in one contemporary interview that the efforts of "race men" like Brown have allowed him to flourish, while declining to take up that mantle, and he could have argued that, as the first African-American pitchman of any stature, this was his contribution -- role model, pioneer, what have you.
But however Simpson's visibility in Hertz and RC Cola ads might have benefited the African-American community, it's clear that Simpson's primary interest was in how it would benefit...Simpson. We've become accustomed to viewing him through a lens of his own titanic narcissism, and to ascribing enormous significance to the notorious "I'm not black, I'm O.J." line; Made In America makes me wonder if, as important as the first part of that statement is to us as a society, the second part isn't the more telling. A childhood friend clocked Simpson during a tennis outing to the Kardashian mansion, muttering that, if he weren't O.J. and they weren't with him, the Kardashians and their fancy friends would have no use for them. "But I am O.J.," Simpson replied.
"But I am O.J."
As "Part 1" unspools, we see -- we're explicitly told -- that Simpson had always had it in mind to create and fulfill a character named O.J., a brand, a product, personable and charismatic, powerful but not scary, aspirational but approachable. He felt on some level that he could shove all the ugly clutter of O.J.: The Man, the infidelity and self-absorption, behind O.J.: The Brand, and for a long time, he bet correctly. Watching him darting out from a fistful of tackles and floating towards the endzone, looking like he was skating over the snow, diagonally, not even needing to hit full stride, I nodded and said, "Huh huh, will you look at that." That that run could cancel out even for a second the other one in my mind...it's really quite something. Not something good, either. Just...something. Something about how I got here.
Edelman's teasing out of various strands of O.J.'s history and significance, then weaving them back together is extremely skillful (late in "Part 1," Simpson pere finally comes up, and you're like, right, where's he been in all thi-- ohhhh, gotcha). It's a complicated stew of American abstractions that we centered on one guy, and it's a tough story to tell without getting bogged down; Edelman is helped somewhat, of course, by the eminent watchability of his subject, but mostly is just savvy about how to structure it, and it's sometimes uncomfortable and always unpauseable.