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Sundance 2016: The director of ESPN's 'O.J.: Made in America' finds new ground on Simpson

The O.J. Simpson affair would seem to have long ago worn out its media welcome. Each news special, documentary and tell-all book has, in the two decades since the so-called trial of the century, increasingly ground us down. As if all that weren't enough, FX will soon air the fact-based dramatization "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson."

As it turns out, there is another tale left to tell. And it's a doozy.

FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival 2016

At the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, ESPN will unveil "O.J.: Made in America." Directed by the nonfiction filmmaker Ezra Edelman, the documentary series is a sprawling, substantive affair with some startling ideas. Its five episodes will span 7 1/2 hours at the festival (two sessions, with a break in between) and 10 hours when it arrives on commercial television (five nights, likely consecutive, in the spring or early summer).

 

Over that running time, "Made in America" covers a lot more than the murder of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman and the sociological Rorschach test that sprung up in its wake. The miniseries, which The Times was shown in advance of the festival, uses the life of the former USC star as a means of investigating race in America--a Trojan Horse, if you will.

Edelman's tale is something of a double helix, telling the origin story of a complex crossover celebrity while chronicling black-white tension in Los Angeles, from Watts to Rodney King. The trial is important, but only as the convergence of those strands.

"What I want people to think about is that there's more to think about," Edelman said during an interview in New York this week. "This isn't a story that started in June 1994 and ended in the fall of 1995. It started in the 1960s and even before that. And it continues today."

At a moment when crime-themed docu-series have taken hold on television, and when the issue of double standards of black justice crop up in areas as different as police behavior and the Oscars, "Made in America" is a timely exercise. It is also a bold one, taking one of the best-known stories of our time and seeking to reshape the context in which we place it. Edelman's series could change how people view the O.J. trial — in part because they'll stop viewing it as being much about a trial.

That is evident early on: Apart from an opening scene showing O.J. talking to officers in his current Nevada prison (in archival footage supplied by the prison), the first few hours of the miniseries don't deal with many of the star's legal troubles at all.

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Long before that fateful June night, Simpson is depicted as a unique post-Watts figure who broke a glass ceiling when he achieved mainstream celebrity status, via the famous (and, given the eventual development of black athlete megastars, gamechanging) Hertz airport commercial of the 1970s. But he did so seemingly apart from every major civil rights flashpoint of the era. We watch a charismatic football prodigy finding his way in college and eventually with the NFL's Buffalo Bills. Yet even as Watts and other crucibles were happening, he was uttering his now-infamous line "I'm not black; I'm O.J.," according to a childhood friend, setting himself apart from the very cause his fame was helping to further.

The third and fourth episodes do tangle with the legal proceedings, and it is with this that Edelman is on well-trod ground. But he manages to find plenty of new terrain here too, weaving the chase into a thriller whose inevitable conclusion makes it no less taut. (He is helped in this by new perspectives that give the events a panoramic sweep: a SWAT team chief racing to beat Simpson to his home; a helicopter traffic reporter who first spotted the Bronco.) The fifth chapter provides a kind of surreal epilogue, focusing on Simpson's bizarre and finally doomed post-trial life.

Yet it is the subject of race, and how Simpson both experienced and refracted it, that is the documentary's central narrative. Not the question of innocence — Edelman presents the evidence in a way that makes pretty clear he's concluded Simpson committed the murders — but the significance of exoneration. "Made in America" offers the provocative implication that although the bulk of evidence points to Simpson's guilt, the tide of black history and injustice may argue for his acquittal.

"To me a lot of this becomes about emotion versus intellect," Edelman said when asked about this duality. "And the intellect is easy to glom on to because it's about the evidence. But how do you convey emotion? How do you convey the depth of historical experience? That's what I was trying to do."

Edelman is ideally suited to examine, and bridge, this divide. The son of a black activist mother and white professor father, he said his own identity has been informed by multiple racial perspectives. At 41, he's also old enough to have experienced the trial as an adult but not so old his views about it were cast in concrete.

"Made in America" was first thought up by ESPN as a five-hour look into Simpson, a kind of supersized installment of its acclaimed 30 for 30 series. Network executives came to Edelman, who was well-credentialed to explore the subject, having previously investigated competing racial perspectives in sports ("Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals") and the intersection of athletes, money and pop culture (the stellar 2014 film "Requiem for the Big East"). Eventually it mushroomed into something larger.

Connor Schell, the senior vice president and executive producer at ESPN who oversaw the project, says he thinks even without a specific peg — and even after the FX series, which debuts Feb. 2 — there will be plenty of reasons for people to tune in to ESPN's effort.

"This story is a vehicle to speak about race and celebrity, two of the dominant themes of the last 50 years." Though he acknowledged that finding five consecutive nights clear of live programming will be difficult, he said it wasn't airtime that gave the network pause. "Our concern was never, 'Is this going to be so long that people won't watch?' It was, 'Is this going to be good enough to merit the length?' And I think with all it gets into, it is."

Indeed, for those looking for fresh details, there is plenty to sate. Edelman conducted interviews with 72 people and features 66 of them — experts, activists, friends, trial participants — peppering the series with personal insight. There is the tale from a childhood pal about how Simpson once tried to steal his own best friend's girlfriend, an anecdote that will have more sinister echoes when he rails again his estranged wife's new lovers years later.

There are other contradictions. Simpson as portrayed here often seems likable — indeed, if one knew nothing of later events and just watched him in action in the 1960's and 1970's they'd fall hard for his selflessness and outgoing charisma — but can also turn radically on a dime. He switches on the charm for one of Brown's romantic partners, for instance, just a moment after mortally threatening him.

There are also touching accounts from those who knew the victims, particularly Robin Greer, an actress and Brown's longtime friend, who offers key insight into Brown's thinking, which combines potently with images of her sad fate.

And the piece hints are more Freudian overtones when it suggests Simpson might have harbored shame about his gay father, though Edelman does not spend a lot of time on these more tabloid-y details.

The trial features its share of revealing personalities too. Simpson, prosecutor Christopher Darden and Judge Lance Ito declined to be interviewed, but there is much material from prosecutor Marcia Clark, LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman and Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti for the prosecution (the last one giving a rare interview), as well as Barry Scheck and Carl Douglas for the defense.

The Fuhrman section becomes a mini-portrait in its own right, and viewers will be left to argue over whether he is a decent man exploited by cutthroat lawyers or a flawed racist with a talent for self-justification.

Douglas, meanwhile, is one of the most colorful subjects, and is particularly good at exploring the idea of the Simpson trial as theater. Of the decision before a jury visit to Simpson's house to adorn the walls with photos of black people whom Simpson rarely spent time with, so as to sway black members of the panel, Douglas quipped, "If we had a Latin jury, we would have had a picture of him in a sombrero. There would have been a mariachi band out front."

The lawyer's point is humorous, but it captures a key irony: After years seeking to distance himself from his race, Simpson was a very unlikely repository for its hope.

The series reaches the heights of sociological complexity when Edelman asks the civil rights activist Danny Bakewell — along with Walter Mosley, one of the more persuasive race commentators in the series — whether this means Bakewell used Simpson "for your cause."

No, Bakewell replies, "for our cause."

Edelman ultimately takes a dim view of how the Simpson saga resolved itself.

"O.J. is a sad, depressing American story, and a tragedy," he said in the interview. "But the tragedy is not that this beautiful, charismatic person ended up where he is today. It's that the people who invested in him had so little hope that this was something so important to celebrate —  that they were left to fight over crumbs."

The series is an illumination of both sides of the debate about the acquittal— or, more plainly put, of black and white views of the case. Edelman offers hard evidence to counter those convinced of Simpson's innocence, but at the same time suggests solid reasons why those certain of guilt might question their desire for a conviction.

In other words, though it features a very compelling figure, the most fascinating character in "O.J.: Made in America" isn't the former football star: it's us.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 22, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Finding timely new ground on O.J. - The director of ESPN's Simpson docu-series reveals `more to think about.' - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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