Since its launch in 2009, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has been a reliably entertaining collection of documentaries, each film chronicling a memorable (or fascinatingly obscure) sports moment and offering fresh perspective on what transpired. Although these movies come in different forms, the typical 30 for 30 entry is packaged like a slick oral history, combining new talking-head interviews and archival footage with a little light commentary sprinkled in about the event’s cultural or political implications.
The cable channel’s newest installment in the series is its most ambitious, transcending superficial descriptions such as “entertaining” to get at something deeper, richer, truer. But if you’re conversant with the structure of earlier 30 for 30s, it’s also pleasingly familiar. O.J.: Made in America clocks in at seven-and-three-quarter hours, but it breezes by. The film encapsulates 30 for 30 at its best: It’s endlessly riveting, smartly packaged and exceedingly intelligent. And most important of all, O.J. makes a pretty convincing case to non-sports fans why the rest of us invest so much emotional energy into the exploits of men playing children’s games. Sports are never just sports—they’re an extension of the race and class issues we experience on a daily basis. O.J. Simpson symbolized something powerful in our collective unconscious. And as this movie demonstrates, his fall from grace was partly ours.
O.J. resides in a strange new middle ground that’s being occupied by more and more entertainment these days. Where most 30 for 30 installments run about two hours (including commercials) so that it can fit cozily into ESPN’s programming blocks, this new documentary will air in five chapters, one chapter per day. But because ESPN is so giddy about the movie’s awards possibilities, the company recently released O.J. in theaters in New York and Los Angeles for a week so that it could qualify for Oscar consideration. It’s not uncommon for 30 for 30 films to premiere at festivals such as Toronto and SXSW—O.J. made its debut at Sundance earlier this year—but this is the first time ESPN has taken the extra step of treating one of its documentaries as a piece of cinema rather than “just” a TV movie. As a result, a handful of people have experienced the uncut O.J. in theaters, whereas most viewers will watch the documentary in (presumably) a slightly edited-for-content version on the small screen.
However you see O.J., though, it’s engrossing from its first minutes. The expectation might be that the film will focus on Simpson’s mid-1990s murder trial, where he faced charges of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and while that’s somewhat true, director Ezra Edelman wants to graft a much more profound and overarching narrative around that court case. And so we start at the beginning, the documentary returning to the poor Northern California community where Simpson grew up, quickly fast-forwarding to his first brush with glory and fame as he becomes a celebrated running back at the University of Southern California in the 1960s. 30 for 30 films usually concentrate on one incident—a classic game or playoff series—but not unlike ESPN’s portrait of the 1990s Michigan basketball team, The Fab Five, O.J. aspires to be a comprehensive biography. As such, O.J. is a seductive rise-then-fall narrative that will be familiar to those who know Simpson’s story. And yet, Edelman consistently digs deeper to find the telling societal detail or intriguing character quirk so that we feel like we’re relearning the athlete’s life from a fresh, thoughtfully considered new perspective.
O.J. doesn’t waste much time laying out its overriding thesis. Early on, it becomes clear that Edelman, who smartly resists using a narrator, sees Simpson as a man who wanted to transcend race, believing he should be judged by his merits, not by his skin color. (This theory is advanced by childhood friends and business associates, and O.J. does a rather marvelous job of reaching out to people throughout Simpson’s life to provide insights into the man.)
On its surface, Simpson’s belief was commendable, but as O.J. rolls along, we start to understand how his attitude actually hid a more troubling reality: In truth, he didn’t want to be seen as black, almost as if he was ashamed of his race. Exploiting his charisma and celebrity, the man nicknamed Juice strove to ingratiate himself into mainstream white America. But what at first simply seems hypocritical—he was a prominent African-American sportsman who chose not to use his position to advocate racial equality at a time when other black athletes were risking much by speaking out—will ultimately prove to be a dark flaw in his personality. As O.J. eventually illustrates, Simpson’s acceptance by (white) Americans was a narcotic that he craved. When he lost it, catastrophe beckoned.
Using this thesis as his guide, Edelman (who directed two previous 30 for 30 films) calmly proceeds through Simpson’s life, lightly touching on his years in the NFL and, later, his so-so acting career before pivoting to his second marriage, to Nicole Brown, who was a waitress when Simpson met her. O.J. doesn’t take long to paint their relationship as troubled, with whispers of domestic violence soon circulating. With impressive economy, Edelman crafts a sympathetic, decently nuanced picture of this young woman who, like many victims of abuse, had a difficult time fleeing her abuser. When we get to her death (alongside Goldman), there’s a sickening inevitability to her murder that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking.
This reviewer hasn’t yet watched The People v. O.J. Simpson, so I can’t compare Edelman’s coverage of the trial to that in the FX series. But the 30 for 30 film is a marvelous distillation of what went wrong with the prosecution’s case, Edelman speaking to attorneys on both sides to discuss strategy and how race factored into the trial. (Crucially, the director also talks to two of the jury members, and their observations are a remarkable glimpse into how human beings make snap judgments based on personal biases and the scantest bits of evidence.) Throughout his recap of the trial, Edelman continues exploring his central theme, showing how Simpson’s rejection of racial identity faced its stiffest, most dramatically ironic challenge: For him to win his freedom, he and his lawyers would have to lean hard on racial bias in the Los Angeles Police Department. (O.J. astutely connects the Simpson trial to earlier racial tension in the city, most shockingly during the Rodney King beatings and the subsequent riots that occurred after the cops who brutalized him were exonerated by a jury.)
If one initially assumed O.J. would devote the majority of its running time to the so-called Trial of the Century, then perhaps it’s also reasonable to believe the documentary wouldn’t spend many minutes on its aftermath. But it’s in keeping with the somber arc of this movie’s narrative that O.J. uses its fifth and final chapter to examine Simpson’s downfall after he was declared not guilty. This is no conventional riches-to-rags cautionary tale, though: The post-trial Simpson is portrayed as a man who lost his mooring, unable to win back the love of a public that used to be his unconditionally. It would be inaccurate to say that one walks away from O.J. feeling that its subject was misunderstood or got a bad rap, but Edelman recontextualizes his life so that we see it as a tragedy of his own making. Our complicity in that tragedy is our collective blind worship of celebrities and sensationalism—the movie queasily reminds us about how the trial was a triumph of emotion—as well as our unwillingness to grapple with racial inequality in this country. (Put more specifically, it’s white America’s unwillingness that’s especially poisonous.)
These thoughts and feelings churn through the viewer while absorbing this superb piece of work. Still, there are some mild reservations worth noting. Over the course of O.J.’s nearly eight hours, the film’s talking-heads-and-archival-footage structure can feel repetitive and overly polished. (That said, there is never-before-seen material in O.J. that’s exceptional.) And if you’re familiar with the 30 for 30 series, the movie can be awfully reminiscent of other documentaries in the franchise.
In a larger sense, though, O.J. is Exhibit A of a sturdy documentary institution. The best 30 for 30 films have innovatively rethought the series’ assembly-line narrative similarity: June 17th, 1994 (which viewed Simpson’s Bronco chase through the prism of all the sporting events that happened that day) and No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (where Hoop Dreams director Steve James looked at the life of the NBA star from a more personal perspective). For all its greatness, O.J.: Made in America doesn’t revolutionize the formula as much as harnesses it for the athlete who would provide it with the most emotional and sociopolitical impact. From now on, whenever anyone asks me what 30 for 30to watch first, I won’t hesitate to name this one. This might not be the greatest documentary in the series—but it’s certainly the most definitive of its format.
Director: Ezra Edelman
Release Date: May 20, 2016 for a one-week theatrical run; June 11, 2016 for a five-day run on ABC and ESPN
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.