OJ: Made In America – the Oscar winner that's the most in-depth look at race in America yet

Lanre Bakare
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There are many reasons why OJ: Made In America shouldn’t work. It retells a story we all know and are probably a bit sick of, that being the rise and fall of Orenthal James Simpson. The film’s director – Ezra Edelman – had to be convinced to take on the project for that very reason. There’s the memory of John Travolta’s wigs in Ryan Murphy’s dramatic/comedic The People v OJ Simpson, which are still all too fresh in our collective memory, and the fact Brett Morgan already delivered one of the best sports documentaries ever June 17th, 1994, consisting solely of the police-and-Bronco car chase, in 2010. Oh, and it’s eight bloody hours long.

But despite all that, what you’ll get if you turn off your phone and binge for those 480 minutes is one of the most in-depth looks at race and America that’s ever been committed to film. It’s no surprise that is scooped up the best documentary feature Oscar. We see how OJ starts off as an unruly working class kid living in a still effectively segregated San Francisco, who is seduced by the white middle class of America. It’s like Anakin’s turn to the dark side, except instead of being an arrogant dolt who gives Ewan McGregor a load of side-eye, he refuses to get involved with the civil rights movement, takes lots of corporate money and is a serial spousal abuser.

You’ll spend a lot of the eight hours going, “Ohhhh, I see why he was like that now”, and, “Ohhhh, America really does have a race problem, doesn’t it?” But Edelman isn’t giving OJ an excuse. He’s painted as a maniacal manipulator who, when he returned home to his affluent LA neighbourhood to be greeted with hundreds of African-American supporters after being arrested for the murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, said: “What are all these n***** doing in Brentwood?” The two murder victims, meanwhile, are front and centre of the documentary. Edelman shows the graphic murder scene photographs as if to remind viewers that, after all the hype and spin, this was about two people who died in the most violent way possible.

There’s no narration, so the action is led by an ensemble cast of friends, enemies and associates. None better than Carl Edwin Douglas, who served alongside Johnnie Cochran on OJ’s defence team and is possibly the most incredulous and enthusiastic talking head that ever drew breath. As he recalls all the stunts the defence pulled – baiting the prosecution into the “glove” faux pas, redecorating OJ’s house so it appeared he had black friends to appease the jury – he grins like Tim Curry in Home Alone 2. Former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman, with his racist ranting, also played a significant role in convincing the jury that OJ might have been set up. It’s all hard to believe and impossible to stop watching, not least because we see the jury members essentially accept that the not guilty verdict was a case of score settling for Rodney King, after the police officers who beat him walked free 18 months before.

The only real problem with OJ: Made In America is that you start to think nearly everything could have hidden depths if a film-maker had untold hours to delve into it. Suddenly, an extended doc dedicated to Will Young’s unlikely Pop Idol win over Gareth Gates might have potential to tell us something truly harrowing about the British psyche. Thankfully, though, some shows will only ever get a 30-minute slot.

OJ: Made In America is streaming on iPlayer

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