'Whose Side Are You On?': The Trial On Trial In O.J.: Made In America
The ugliness isn't confined to those photos. (Don't worry, we don't reproduce them here.)
O.J.: Made In America's fourth installment is the film's most difficult terrain, for a handful of reasons. The first is that, for the most part, this is the material most of us know, remember, and probably just revisited with American Crime Story a few months ago, so it's a challenge to present in a way that won't put viewers on autopilot. The second is the focus on Mark Fuhrman; Fred Goldman's fuming that "this is now the Fuhrman trial" is a narrative test it's not really possible to pass. It felt back then like the trial had wandered off into an interminable caucus on Fuhrman's relative humanity that had nothing to do with the matter at hand, but of course it had everything to do with the matter at hand.
The third is the indescribably grim photos of Nicole Brown Simpson's and Ron Goldman's bodies, the photos we've heard about and fear we can't handle, so that we spend the first hour of "Part 4" bracing for them instead of listening. To bring to justice, to punish and protect society from the perpetrator who ripped these two people open, is the matter at hand...but then, the question of whether that's possible to do fairly in Los Angeles in 1995 isn't something we can separate from that.
As to the photos themselves...what can I say. It's a terrible sight, but not a gratuitous one; we could do worse, studying the story of O.J. Simpson again, to face exactly how Nicole and Ron died, the terror they must have felt. Nicole is lying in, I think, the entirety of her blood. Yes, the case is about Fuhrman, and race, and class, and procedure, but when Jeffrey Toobin commented that Johnnie Cochran's closing boiled down to "Whose side are you on?"...theirs. Nicole's and Ron's. Because goodness and mercy weren't, that night.
It's an extraordinary balancing act for the film. Made In America traces the axes along which the case is complicated, without taking shortcuts on the one hand, or confusing and boring the audience on the other -- and it draws parallels that Ezra Edelman may or may not intend, and in that, the film reminds me of Hannibal. That comparison could sound crass, so please understand: I adored Hannibal, not for the gore, but...well, not in spite of it, either, but Bryan Fuller and his team had a way of tying together literal and figurative darkness and fear and death, and reflecting moral opposites visually and vice versa. A scripted show about a fictional east-coast serial killer is hardly an exact analog, buuuuut then the man at the center of each is a charismatic, privileged, lethal bundle of personality disorders whose fame and charm we fetishize at our peril.
Fuller, working off a character conceived by Thomas Harris, gave his dark star an opposite number in law enforcement: Will Graham (or Clarice Starling, depending on where in that canon you like to hang out). Edelman is dealing with real people, but again the opposite number is a detective: Mark Fuhrman. Here he is bragging to Laura Hart McKinny about brutalizing suspects:
Whether or not Fuhrman is telling the truth here, I couldn't help thinking of Nicole's face in those Polaroids, and Nicole's windshield, and Nicole's dead body. Fuhrman sighs late in the fourth installment that "for you it's a documentary, for me it's the end of my life," a sentiment that no doubt feels true to Fuhrman but 1) proceeds directly from his own actions and attitudes, and 2) is not appropriate to express in the context of the lives that did end so miserably. Compare that to the inappropriatenesses in Simpson's suicide letter, the self-pity, the spinning, the weird section in the middle that reads like an awards-show speech.
The most striking parallel of all, to me, is the untouchability. Fuhrman brags that he has 66 "allegations of brutality" in his file; he's still a cop. LAPD came to Simpson's house, what, eight times on domestic-violence calls? Simpson's still beloved. And nobody believes or protects their victims. Nobody believes that cops could act the way LAPD acted, the epithets, the demeaning searches and stop-and-frisks, the beatings. Nobody believes that Simpson could batter a woman, murder her and a guy who tried to help her in a rage fugue. The police kept getting away with abusing, even killing minorities. Simpson got away with abusing, then killing Nicole -- and his defense team leveraged law-enforcement intransigence to do it.
Whose side, indeed.