'O.J.: Made in America' vanquishes boundaries as it wins the Oscar for documentary feature

Any lingering doubts as to whether the academy would somehow hold the length and origins of “O.J.: Made in America” against it were vanquished Sunday when the 7 1/2-hour film produced for ESPN was awarded the Oscar for documentary feature.

Director Ezra Edelman acknowledged the debate around the film when he began his acceptance speech by saying, “I want to thank the academy for acknowledging this untraditional film. I want to thank ESPN for allowing us the canvas and the time to tell this story. This is the only way it could be told.”

The “Made in America” project was broadcast in five parts and shown in theaters in two parts. The film examines the life of athlete-turned-celebrity O.J. Simpson and the societal forces — the intersection of race, money and fame — that shaped him into the man he became and caused the deep divide in responses to his acquittal of murder charges in the 1990s.

Whether the film should be considered a television program or a movie even eligible for Oscar consideration had been a point of considerable debate within the documentary community and in the media. The Times, for example, split the difference by having the project  reviewed by both a movie critic and a television critic.

In accepting the honor, Edelman also made sure to note those who are often forgotten in conversations regarding Simpson when he said, “I wouldn’t be standing here tonight if not for two people who aren’t here with us: Ron Goldman, Nicole Brown; this is for them and their families.

“It is also for others, the victims of police violence, police brutality, racially motivated violence and criminal injustice,” he added. “This is their story as well as Ron and Nicole’s. I am honored to accept this award on all their behalves.”

,  Immediately after Edelman and producer Caroline Waterlow left the stage, the telecast went to the evening’s host Jimmy Kimmel standing in the aisle of the theater next to Mel Gibson. Offhandedly Kimmel said, “Now I’m not supposed to make an O.J. joke?”

He proceeded to do just that, referencing Simpson’s current incarceration by saying, “O.J., you get an extra slice of baloney on your sandwich tonight.”

After some scattered response from the audience, Kimmel pretended to write his own review copy, saying he lost the audience with “an absolutely tasteless joke about our beloved O.J.”

With his joke, Kimmel inadvertently touched on an array of issues grappled with not only in “O.J.: Made in America” but in a number of the other nominated films as well. Taken together, this year’s nominees dealt with race, celebrity, representation, governance, incarceration, immigration and healthcare.

The other nominated films were “Fire at Sea,” directed by Gianfranco Rosi; “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck; “Life Animated,” directed by Roger Ross Williams; and “13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay.

Rosi’s “Fire at Sea” examines the immigration crisis in Europe through the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, contrasting those finishing a difficult crossing of the Mediterranean against everyday life on the Island.  

DuVernay’s “13th” is named after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which ended slavery in America, and the film examines the nation’s subsequent history of race, the justice system and incarceration.

Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” features Samuel L. Jackson reading the writing of novelist and activist James Baldwin as a meditation on race and representation.

Williams’ “Life, Animated” is the story of Owen Suskind, a young man with autism who relates best to the world via animated Disney movies. (Williams is a previous Oscar winner for the 2010 documentary short “Music by Prudence.”)

The nominees made the category one of the most diverse of the night with regards to representation behind the camera, including four people of color, one woman and an Italian national. Though none of the films is a direct call to action, all in their own way are powerful wake-up calls that expose and inspire.

In an interview on the day of the academy award nominations, Rosi spoke about what drives him to make movies, words that might also summarize all the nominated films.

“I want to make work of emotion, I want to make people wonder, and I want to make people keep asking questions; I don’t want to give answers,” Rosi said. “I want people to relate to a world and ask themselves questions. I want people to come out of the movie and say, ‘What can I do?’”

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Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

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