When is a TV show actually a major motion picture?
Specifically, when does a documentary made for a sports network qualify for awards generally reserved for cinematic excellence? And does it matter where and when you see it?
These are all questions raised and rendered moot by “O.J.: Made in America,” a jaw-dropping epic nearly eight hours in the telling that at last puts the Trial of the Century in a long-range historical and cultural context. Directed by Ezra Edelman, who has been producing and directing TV sports documentaries for a decade, the film was originally intended for multi-night airings on ESPN as part of the “30 for 30” documentary umbrella, but a funny thing happened on the way to the air date. The movie turned out a lot better than expected: Wider, deeper, more thoughtful, and more thought-provoking. Not just a nostalgic rehash of tabloid titillation but a work that viewed the Simpson case through a telephoto lens of race, class, sport, celebrity, and injustice.
“O.J.: Made in America” debuted with a one-day marathon screening at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, with the filmmakers in attendance. Then, before putting it into heavy rotation on ESPN in June and July, ESPN Films released the documentary in two theaters in May: the small New York City indie stalwart Cinema Village and the similar Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles. Drawing crowds wasn’t the point. The idea was to redefine a 467-minute documentary as a cinematic experience and to be eligible for the end-of-year awards circuit. And why not? Everyone in the motion picture academy knows that if it plays in a movie theater, it must be a movie.
Now, after sweeping the early season of critics’ awards (it was named best documentary or some variation thereof by reviewers’ groups in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and by the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review), “O.J.: Made in America” is seen to be a shoo-in for a best documentary Oscar nomination and very possibly a win. There’s even talk of a best picture nomination
Accordingly, the movie is back in theaters. In Boston, it opens for a multiple-play run at the Brattle next weekend; the event is sponsored by the invaluable Cambridge-based documentary showcase DocYard and features an appearance by director Edelman on Monday the 30th. True, the film can also be streamed via Amazon, iTunes, and other outlets, but there’s something to be said for tackling this megillah the old-fashioned way, with a massive bucket of popcorn, one’s fellow citizens, and the appropriate appalled attitude.
“O.J.: Made in America” begins where it should, with an examination of why we cared about Orenthal James Simpson in the first place. In a word: football. In a hackneyed phrase: the American dream. In a complicated but telling calculus: an unthreatening African-American superstar at a time of bitter racial strife.
It was O.J.’s unparalleled talent at running with a football that got him out of Los Angeles poverty and into gridiron stardom at the University of Southern California and with the Buffalo Bills, and “Made in America” duly pauses to bow deeply in the direction of Simpson’s 64-yard game-winning run vs. the University of California at Los Angles in 1967 and the 1973 Bills season, when O.J. set a record by blasting through the 2,000-yard rushing mark. And it was that eternal story of a poor kid bootstrapping himself to fame and success that made him a star beyond the world of football.
But it was Simpson’s studious avoidance of politics and controversy — no Muhammad Ali-style protests or pronouncements for him — that made him a “safe” African-American celebrity and a Madison Avenue natural. One of the more striking moments of the documentary’s early chapters is hearing from Hertz advertising executives as they tell of fashioning Simpson’s hugely successful “Go, O.J., go!” commercial — complete with white extras shouting encouragement from the sidelines.
“Made in America” makes it clear through interviews with colleagues and friends that Simpson bought it all: That he was, in white America’s eyes, white — or, at least, not black. But the documentary has also been sketching in the state of race relations in America, California, and Los Angeles, specifically between African-Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department over the decades. There’s a lot of necessary history here, and by the time we get through the Watts riots in 1965 and Rodney King in 1991, the perceptual divide is stark and obvious.
In retrospect, LA prosecutors were egregiously overconfident in thinking they could convict Simpson for the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman, no matter how much evidence they thought they had. “Made in America” interviews just about everyone who was part of the trial that riveted the country (everyone except those who are no longer alive and assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden, who chose not to participate). One thing in retrospect becomes clear: With the murder and ensuing trial, Simpson instantly became culturally black again, in the eyes of a lot of white onlookers, on the cover of Time magazine, and in the minds of many African-Americans, who saw him as persecuted and in need of rescue.
Of course it was all insane; of course the various tendrils of assumption and presumption and delusion are obvious to pick apart now. As much as “O.J.: Made in America” is about race — with all his white Hollywood hangers-on who wanted to get next to O.J. before his crime and the posse of African-American lowlifes who gathered around him afterward — it’s equally about the toxic nature of celebrity in our culture. How it can warp self-worth and poison human relationships; how an insecure celebrity (which is, I think, a redundancy) can never be sure whether he’s loved for himself or his fame; how stardom can make a man feel like a god and a fraud at one and the same time. And how all those contradictions can drive a person crazy. Or worse.
Simpson is currently in a Nevada state prison serving time for kidnapping and armed robbery in a 2007 sports-memorabilia incident. His appearance at a bail hearing (denied) in the opening moments of “O.J.: Made in America” is like an introduction to a graying, bloated, supplicating ghost. The implication by the documentary’s end is that he walked for the murders he committed — even his agent says he thinks O.J. did it — and now rots in prison for trying to steal back mementos of his fame. The ironies of this whole sorry history are not new. We can just see them more clearly now.