Director: Ezra Edelman
View on: Hulu Plus
*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.
Clocking in at just under 8 hours, O.J.: Made in America is by far the longest documentary nominated for an Oscar this year. I was pretty young when the O.J. Simpson murder trial happened. I remember watching the low speed police chase in the white Ford Bronco, and I remember watching when the verdict came in. But as a 7 year old, I had no idea of the complicated dynamics that went into that trial.
The documentary does a great job explaining O.J.’s history, not only his childhood and career, but also his history of power and control, especially over women like his wife Nicole. The documentary also explains the history of racism experienced by black residents of LA at the hands of the LAPD. More than a third of O.J.: Made in America is devoted to explaining this history.
One of the things I didn’t know about O.J. was the way he thought about race before the trial. He was a black man, but he was also a very talented athlete and he was very comfortable among wealthy white people. In the late 60s when many black athletes were taking part in peaceful protests, O.J. chose not to participate. His thought was that his talent should do all the talking. I don’t blame him for that – there are lots of different ways that people work to fight injustice, and one of them is to prove themselves. That’s the route O.J. took. But the film is careful to explain why he had the ability to prove himself – it was because of the sacrifices of black athletes before him who had to fight to even get a chance to play integrated sports.
I also didn’t know much about O.J.’s personal life before the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. He had three children with his first wife, one of whom drowned in the family pool. O.J. had an affair with Nicole Brown before he was divorced from his first wife. One person interviewed in the film who was a friend of Nicole’s recounted when she came home from their first date. Her clothes were torn and she basically said that O.J. was “aggressive” toward her. But she really liked him. From the beginning it was, at best, an unhealthy relationship.
I’ve spent a decent amount of time learning about and volunteering with survivors of domestic violence, and so for me the story of O.J. Simpson just reminds me of the cycle of power and control that I have seen play out for so many survivors. In the case of O.J. and Nicole, the situation was not just one of domestic violence but also one of race. As I’ve noted in a previous post, there is a historical stereotype of black men raping white women that goes back to the times of slavery. At the time that Nicole was murdered, there was also a lot of tension between the city of LA and the black community – Rodney King had been beaten by LAPD officers and they had subsequently been acquitted. The city had erupted.
So, when O.J. murdered Nicole and Ron (which, to me, and I think to many people today, seems like a fact), it was more than a case of domestic violence. Race was intertwined. But beyond that, O.J. Simpson had enough money to hire the best defense team money could buy. Several people interviewed in the documentary note that this was one thing that separated O.J. Simpson from many other black men who were arrested and tried in a racist system, because as racist as the system is, O.J. was able to overcome that racism with money. Notably to me, the other difference between O.J. and some of those other black men was that O.J. was guilty, and certainly not all black defendants who go to trial are, even if they are found guilty.
The last hour of the film is dedicated to O.J.’s life after the murder trial. It shows him womanizing, doing drugs, and of course infamously committing armed robbery. That last one is why he’s in jail today. But to me, probably the most interesting part of the film was the interviews with members of the prosecution and defense teams from the murder trial, an LA civil rights leader, a couple of the jurors, O.J.’s friends, and Nicole’s family and friends. Several of them, even some of O.J.’s friends, are convinced he killed Nicole and Ron. But his defense team and the civil rights leader do not ever say whether they think he is guilty or innocent – only that the system is racist and rigged. They aren’t wrong – the system is racist and rigged. But even though the system is racist and rigged, in the case of O.J.’s murder trial, the system got it wrong.
I think there are several takeaways from this film. First, institutional racism is alive and well and plays into basically everything in life. Second, domestic violence is alive and well and can affect anyone, regardless of their wealth or fame or race. Third, O.J. Simpson worked hard to build up his wealth and fame, and once he got them, he milked it for all it was worth and he got away with an awful lot.
“OJ reached the top of the mountain, and when he fell off, it should not reflect on black people at all. It should reflect on O.J.” – Sylvester Monroe
To me, the social justice issue that is ever present in this film but is not focused on is domestic violence. It is all too common, and most of the time those of us who aren’t in the home or relationship have no idea it is occurring. It can be emotional or physical, or in the case of Nicole Brown, both. In the United States, about 22 percent of murders are family murders – mostly of wives. So what can you do? First, it’s important to push for laws that strengthen the penalties for being convicted of domestic violence and that help keep survivors safe through the use of protective orders. In Texas, we have the Texas Council on Family Violence that lobbies for these issues. Second, it’s important to call out behaviors of power and control when we see it, especially when it is idolized in the world of pop culture which still happens all too often. And third, it’s important to support survivors by working with local domestic violence victim services agencies. In Austin, I support SAFE and Asian Family Support Services of Austin. I recommend checking out DomesticShelters.org to find one near you.