O.J.: Made In America Cuts To The Chase
As the film moves into the trial, we're obliged to consider what we think we know.
"Part 3" of O.J.: Made In America is where I came in, for lack of a better term. Specifically, I came in at the chase. I don't have any particular memory of my reaction to the murders themselves; I had moved home after graduating college, like, four days before and much of my mental energy was devoted to not murdering my mother. Everything after that is as familiar as furniture, like Dan Rather's gobstoppery pronunciation of "jer-AURS," or Tom Lange addressing an armed and apparently suicidal grown-up as "Juice." That moniker never bothered O.J. Simpson, I guess, or he'd have switched over to "Ren" or "Jimmy" back in the '50s, but the babyish informality of it is so striking, in the middle of what amounts to a hostage negotiation.
Leave it to Simpson to take himself hostage and create what is probably the enduring symbol of the twentieth century in the process. "Part 3" is packed with compelling insights (Marcia Clark's acidic "it was just the biggest bunch of horseshit, but: he sold it," for one; talk about made in America, hee) and visuals; again Ezra Edelman has a perfect eye and ear for how long to let footage run, as when he holds on Simpson at that first hearing so we can see the facial twitch and the racing eyes in search of a cue card. Carl Douglas's deprecating imitation of his own specious dudgeon when Clark accuses him of gaming the walk-through at Rockingham is glorious. SWAT's Peter Weireter's clinical description of the way he identified Simpson's pressure points as his ego and self-absorption is chilling. Mark Fuhrman is back; the "Dream Team" has taken the stage; the jurors get talking-head interviews. But the chase eclipses them all.
That chase...well, "chase" isn't the right word, as several interviewees point out; chopper reporter Zoey Tur compares it to a presidential motorcade, and it is an escort, versus a pursuit. That's part of what makes it, I would argue, the defining image of the American twentieth century: that it proceeds from celebrity. Another part is the nearness of death, possibly Simpson's -- that he would actually have taken his own life seems impossible now, but I for one spent the long minutes of footage showing only the top of the car bracing for a report -- and certainly Nicole's and Ron's. Greater than all the parts somehow is the eerie grandeur of it, still. It can becalm me to this day. The optical composition of it is almost too neat, the dimly discernible forms of the black men, alone in a white car (an American car, named for an untamed horse), driving into a post-apocalyptically empty L.A. freeway with the law at their backs. It's like the industrial fields of Kearny, NJ and their strange fires, or Mathew Brady's tintypes of the Civil War dead akimbo on the ground with dancing arms, the sort of hideous you can't stop looking at. I imagine the professors of 3094 beaming that footage into their students' pastports. "Behold, the civilization in decline. Now, as you may recollect from our Rome unit..."
We'll never really know what happened in that Bronco. We'll never really know what happened in that courtyard; I forget which interviewee noted that Simpson is not the kind of personality who will confess to the murders, and I would agree with that assessment. Made In America is so watchable, among other reasons, because of what the film does let us know, sometimes for the first time: how hard it was to see Nicole at the wake; that Fuhrman initially thought the glove was dog poo; that the family sat around at Rockingham during the chase, watching TV and picking at a sandwich buffet while sniper teams got set up in the neighboring houses. And it does the best job I've yet seen at letting viewers know how anyone could believe Simpson's innocence; the film builds from Eula Mae Love through Rodney King, riots, Leonard Deadwyler, decades of excessive force and discrimination and injustice, commissions and press conferences and verdicts that changed nothing, and I could have this wrong, but I think it's not that Angelenos of color couldn't believe Simpson would murder two people. I think it's that they couldn't believe that the police would believe Simpson, no matter what happened in that courtyard, because coming from an African-American, Simpson's version of events quite simply would not count. What we've become accustomed to seeing spun as blind loyalty based on race is in fact logical empathy based on long, galling experience.
...I think that's the film's point. I'm a white lady from Jersey, so what I think I know is worth about what you've paid to read it as far as firsthand understanding. I know a thing or two about documentaries, though, and the ones that show you something new about an old subject, or take you to a destination via a "scenic route" that actually is the point, are the ones that last.