Thursday, October 6, 2016

O.J.: Made In America Is An Incredible Achievement, Simple As That

When you become a celebrity, your life is no longer your own.

Your reach extends outward almost infinitely, not just to the way your friends and family are affected by your level of exposure, but also in the way your fame resonates with the public. A kid in Wyoming who could become the next great scientist could have gotten his passion for the world of beakers and measurements ignited by the presence of Neil DeGrasse Tyson or deceased figures like Albert Einstein who are leaving their mark on this planet even long after they've left this life. How could O.J. Simpson not be a similarly influential figure? In the late 60's, a time of upheaval for African-Americans, he claimed incredible sports accomplishments that made him one of the more notable African-American sports figures in recent memory.

Maybe there's another version of this reality where that's all O.J. Simpson became famous for, just being really good on the field with a football instead of what he's now known as, a wife-beating murderer who got embroiled in the sort of race-related politics he had so desperately tried to avoid for decades. We all know about the murder trial that O.J. was at the center of in the mid-90's and O.J.: Made In America surely does not skimp on covering that event in the man's life. But one of the endless fascinating things about this documentary is how deeply it goes into O.J.'s life to the point where the viewer is told tales of O.J. earlier days that offer glimpses into the narcism-driven monster he would become or even always was.

O.J.: Made In America takes place over 5 sprawling parts, amounting to over 460 minutes of footage. Even after it was finished, my first thought was "I want more". Director Ezra Edelman has compiled an engrossing examination of O.J. Simpson that also looks at the state of race relations in America (and specifically Los Angeles) during the years O.J. became such a noteworthy sports legend. Even back in the 60's, O.J. made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the topic of speaking out for people more persecuted than him in this country, refusing to oppose sporting events like fellow African-American athletes or take part in Civil Rights marches.

Some sublime editing occurs in an initial sequence depicting the way O.J. wants to distance himself from the real world race issues plaguing this country wherein we cut back and forth between footage of people reacting to the atrocious death of Martin Luther King Jr. and O.J. Simpson enjoying the cushy life in his pristine college. It's pretty clear that O.J. Simpson, a man who grew up in impoverished conditions, had become embroiled in fame and was not looking to leave the presence of such an entity. So what if the "friends" that surrounded him and the personality that he conveyed were a facade? It was better than the reality he'd grown up with and he wasn't looking to exit such an illusion.

Even in this early days of his career, the breadcrumbs of something shady going on in this guys psyche are already apparent, especially in the way he dates his best friends girlfriend...only to cheat on that woman for Nicole Brown. The folks around O.J. were mere puppets he would control for his own amusement, with refusal to control resulting in lashing out and anger in the most pleasant situations. And then, to cover up such a deceitful persona, he emanates a charming demeanor (one that was, according to a tale told by one of O.J.'s childhood friends, able to get him out of trouble with a school principal after he got caught shooting craps in school) that makes him irresistible to the public. "Everything's good" he seemed to always be saying in his public appearances....but behind closed doors, he'd be sure to let anyone, especially Nicole Brown, his displeasure in no uncertain terms.

What so fascinating about what director Ezra Edelman has concocted here is the grander scope of the documentary allows one to see that the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman was less of a fall from grace for O.J. and more of a culmination of decades of him being held on a pedestal that warped his mind to the point where he thought he could do anything...including getting away with murder. And in an ironic twist, he was able to get off for that heinous crime by his lawyers appealing to the very real racial injustices occurring in the LAPD (just look at how encased in hateful bigotry the mind of Mark Fuhrman is) that O.J. had always tried to sidestep and turn a blind eye to his entire adult life.

There's plenty to contemplate from the from the many sordid tales present in the documentary (one account of how O.J. was watching Nicole Brown and a man she was seeing at the time getting physical is particularly unnerving, a demonstration on how there were no boundaries for The Juice in that man's mind) and it cannot be stressed enough how much the various interview subjects bring to the proceedings. A wide net is cast in terms of the sort of individuals who appear here, ranging from various officials present in the Nicole Brown/Ron Goldman murder trial (Marcia Clark shows up in all her awesome glory) to childhood friends of O.J. who regale the audience with tales of O.J.'s bravado. Maybe the best of these interview subjects is Ron Schipp, a man who admired O.J. for years and became a close friend to the man.

Hearing Ron Schipp talk in detail about his slowly deteriorating friendship with O.J. lends one the impression that O.J. Simpson was a volatile individual driven by egomania and a desire to emanate a constant personality of "It's all good, it's all good" no matter the situation. It's a fascinating psychological experience and one that Ezra Edelman deserves outstanding praise for putting together. O.J.: Made In America is a sublime example of what documentaries can accomplish as a storytelling medium as well as remarkable examination of O.J. Simpson and his connection to this country over multiple tumultuous decades.

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