Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, it played at a few festivals and had a limited run in theaters before airing on ABC/ESPN in five parts, in June. I don’t know for sure, but it feels like this is the first time an ESPN documentary was nominated for an Oscar. TV documentaries have crossed over at times .. my favorite documentary of all time, The Sorrow and the Pity, was made for French TV. But it is shown in theaters, at least in the USA. Made in America runs for almost 8 hours, and so is perfect for viewing on television over multiple days.
It was, and is, impossible to consider this film without also commenting on The People vs. O.J. Simpson, a docudrama series that ran on FX in early 2016, not only because they cover the same ground, but also because they were released so close to each other. The FX series won many Emmy awards, and was seen as retroactively vindicating Marcia Clark, with Sarah Paulson’s portrayal showing the human side of Clark. In general, the focus of the mini-series was on the characters, and it’s an impressive list and an impressive cast.
Made in America takes a different approach. In the FX series, it seems that O.J. was acquitted because his lawyers were smart and the prosecutors kept making mistakes. But the documentary gives a broader cultural context. We watch O.J. go from growing up in the projects in San Francisco, excelling in football, going to USC, winning the Heisman Trophy, moving to Buffalo in the NFL, setting records, winning an MVP award, eventually ending up in the Hall of Fame. All of this, plus his forays into acting and especially his success as a spokesperson, made Simpson one of the most popular and admired of athletes. This sets the stage for his subsequent fall.
Then the documentary steps back to look at current affairs at the time, specifically the relationship between the LAPD and the African-American community, most famously the Rodney King beating and the acquittal of all the officers who were involved. Other events are highlighted, including the murder by cops of Eula Mae Love, which gives an understanding of the negative feelings of many African-Americans to the police, and to the justice system that never seemed to bring justice to black people.
It is this background material that is most revealing in the documentary. The Simpson trial is famous for being interpreted differently by black and white people. Blacks cheered O.J.’s acquittal, whites wondered how he went free considering the evidence. But Made in America shows how Simpson became a symbol for oppression. His dream team of lawyers played that angle, and while the film doesn’t necessarily convince the viewer that O.J. was innocent, it does transfer the primary guilt to the system that had historically worked against African-Americans. You can imagine being on the jury and thinking, “I can’t find this man guilty”.
The irony is that Simpson had lived much of his public life as the black man white people could love. He lived in Brentwood, one of the only blacks in the neighborhood. He was very rich ... he could afford a Dream Team. Once he got off, he went back to playing golf.
None of this mattered. Simpson-as-symbol had beaten the system, Simpson-as-black-man stood in for all the African-Americans who had been screwed over for centuries.
The film goes on to show how Simpson’s life fell apart over the years, but the sections placing his case in a social context remain the core of the film. If you watched The People vs. O.J. Simpson and felt for Marcia Clark, O.J.: Made in America makes you feel for the entire oppressed community of Black Americans.
Neither approach is “right” or “wrong”. The two series illuminate each other. But the documentary will stand as a record of the times, while the mini-series will stand as a dramatic actors’ showcase.