O.J.: Made in America [TV mini-series] (USA, 2016)

Directed by: Ezra Edelman. Whenever something this good comes along, it’s hard to talk about without seeming hyperbolic. I know that if you haven’t seen the movie yet, it might seem extreme if I told you that this documentary is one of the best documentaries of all time, or the best “true-crime” documentary I’ve ever seen, and it would certainly seem a bit extreme if I told you that this long-form documentary from ESPN was the most compelling, persuasive, enlightening and profound meditation on race and racism in America that I’ve ever seen. And to generalize a bit, I think a big chunk of the success of this thing is in its running time. This is one of the few times I’ve seen a studio realize that long format is essential to digging in deep into a topic. (Curiously, my gripe with American stuff is usually that the two-hour format precludes any significant, book-like depth into a topic, or conversely, that their facile, half-hour comedies go on for about 8 seasons too long.) In this case, the studio in question is ESPN of all things, who I didn’t even know was in the game of making significant non-sports documentaries, but apparently this 30 for 30 series does this frequently. I suspect it’s mostly great-heroes-in-sports type stuff, but even so, that’s impressive! This is 5 episodes, each 90-120 minutes, clocking in at over 450 hours. Of course, if it was a dumb person making it, or if it was poorly done somehow, then this would be 450 hours of garbage and I’d be decrying it for being too long. But the filmmakers, led by Ezra Edelman, had the good sense to do what big historical books do—give us lots of context. I knew this thing was onto something good when it started unfolding the parallel storyline, alongside the story of a young kid named O.J. who had a certain biography and a certain upbringing, etc, another storyline about the history of the African American population in Los Angeles, starting with the mass migrations from the South during the Depression and postwar era. Basically, the genius in this documentary is that it’s willing to take the bold move of spending a significant amount of time showing us a parallel history that in a direct way may lead viewers to ask “what does this have to do with O.J.?”, and then proceeding, in a masterfully artistic and authoritative way, to demonstrate exactly what this all has to do with O.J., to the extent that, by the 2/3 or 3/4 mark, that same viewer is convinced that all of this parallel storyline is crucially important, is not some fancy extra context, but is an essential part of the process of trying to understand the trial of O.J. Simpson, and the case of O.J. Simpson in general. To generalize again, I think that this film is pretty brilliant because, as a white guy, it performed the double duty of making me realize how little I understand of the African American experience, and then to teach me something significant about that experience that I wouldn’t have thought of before. And I also love how, because it’s not interested in portraying O.J. in a positive light particularly, this documentary continues where a lot of docs end: at the point where the narrative doesn’t make neat sense, and the subject of the doc goes off the rails and gets really painfully weird (I mean specifically all the weird music videos where O.J. is clearly high on cocaine while performing his awful rap album, dressed as Santa or Elvis, dancing with topless strippers…THAT whole thing!). This movie is in the realm of great instead of good because it’s smart enough to show us that life doesn’t fit neatly into easily digestible categories (which runs counter to the majority of even sober and intelligent documentaries), and it reinforces the fact that, as the wise man said, you need a lot of context to really talk about anything.

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