It’s unfortunate that, because they debuted within months of each other, O.J.: Made in America will get confused with The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The latter is an FX docudrama, another fluffed-up pile of nothing from the Ryan Murphy factory. The former is a five-part, non-fiction miniseries premiering on ABC on June 11 (subsequent episodes continue on ESPN). It’s consummate documentary filmmaking—a tragic, infuriating, utterly riveting account of how the “trial of the century” outlined this country’s racial divide, its perverted judicial system and the toxic side effects of the American dream.
No mere courtroom saga, Made in America dedicates more than a third of its epic runtime to the world before June 12, 1994, the night Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered in Brentwood, California. It’s about O.J. the star running back, who ran through defenses like “foreign water through a tourist.” He broke many color barriers on the road to mainstream stardom, yet he never joined any civil-right cause. Overhearing a woman say, “Look, there’s O.J. sitting with all those ni**ers,” Simpson responds, “She knew I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J.”
This is also the story of LA—the Watts riots and police entitlement, civil-rights violations and wrongful deaths, the Rodney King verdict and a city on fire. Simpson, who spent his whole life trying to be colorless, if not white, was suddenly presented as a civil-rights hero. His defense team, playing to a black jury, even redecorated Simpson’s home by replacing photos of white friends with those of black people. “If we had had a Latin jury,” says defense attorney Carl E. Douglas, “we’d have had a picture of him in a sombrero. There would have been a mariachi band out front.”
Such candor makes Made in America feel revealing. Twenty years is time enough for people to let their guard down, and though defense players like F. Lee Bailey and Barry Scheck maintain their poker faces, most interviewees (Marcia Clark, the jurors) earn your respect even when they piss you off. Even Mark Fuhrman comes off as … well, not sympathetic, but perhaps a tad admirable just for being present and accountable.
After the trial, Simpson went on to snort coke with strippers and small-time thugs on the sets of bad rap videos, with a laughably botched deal over sports memorabilia leading to his current incarceration. The final section of Made in America plays like a sub-regional, dinner-theater performance of Goodfellas, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. No one in this story does the right thing (even Ron Goldman’s parents lose face), and when anyone tries, those efforts are wasted on an undeserving egomaniac, a man who, in the words of one pastor, “did more to hurt young African-American men and boys by putting on this charade.” It’s a true American tragedy.