Believe The Hype Around ESPN's O.J. Simpson Documentary | Gradient
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Believe the hype around ESPN’s O.J. Simpson documentary

In an incredible moment of network serendipity, just two months after the end of the critically beloved and widely popular People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series is releasing a sweeping, definitive, five-part documentary on O.J. Simpson’s momentous rise and sordid legacy. O.J.: Made in America is a careful and thorough exploration of Simpson’s life, career, and the world that formed him. Here are two ways to get the most out of this outstanding, must-see series.

Let the documentary breathe

I screened the documentary at a small cinema in Manhattan a few weeks before the June 11th release. I don’t recommend doing anything for 8 hours in a row, especially binge-watching a TV miniseries from 4 PM until midnight. (Or attending a screening that long without an arsenal of snacks.) A series of this caliber, with such attention to detail, spanning almost fifty years of American history, needs to be savored. DVR it if you must, but take a pause between episodes to absorb the story.

In that vein, to whatever ability that you can, observe the show with a blank slate. Like the People vs. O.J., the documentary is way too complicated to sustain your crappy 1990s hot take. Director Ezra Edelman took the necessary time to examine all aspects of the case and beyond it. Every argument drawn for or against Simpson is done with impeccable nuance. Many of Edelman’s interview subjects build a compelling case that O.J. “did it” but even then, the convergence of skyrocketing fame, latent narcissism, and deeply ingrained racial attitudes build a richer narrative than the standard “he got away with it” fare.

Pay attention to the rhythms

Yes, you’ve heard this story before, but not like this. Edelman’s most compelling thesis is reaped from the title: only in America could an O.J. Simpson exist. 

Edelman patiently reports the circumstances of his story, both in its uncanny confluence and disturbing resemblance to American life and values, past and present. Brock Turner’s embarrassingly light sentencing — still dominating the news and our national conversation —  reminds us that men get away with violence against women all the time, but especially when they excel at a sport. Today, we debate the deaths of unarmed blacks like Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Rekia Boyd, all slain by police and with little consequence for the officers. O.J.: Made in America, explores the Watts riots of the ’60s, and the Rodney King beating of the ’90s, allowing audiences to infer why a jury of O.J.’s African American, Los Angeles-located peers would have lost trust in a system that had never shown a persistent interest in their well-being.

Danny Bakewell, a Los Angeles-based civil rights activist, described O.J. as “mute” and a “non-entity” to the major civil rights issues of his day. But fighting for the civil rights denied from your people is to bear the consequences of that fight. When you’re O.J. Simpson, national spokesman for Hertz, movie star, and Hall of Fame football player and, most of all, utterly beloved by white America, why would you risk your acclaim for equality? Fighting for justice is an abstraction when, to borrow a turn of phrase from Simpson himself, you aren’t oppressed, you’re O.J.!

When the documentary drops, many viewers will understandably hone in on the dynamics of the trial. The shocking, never-before-seen reveal of Nicole’s slain corpse and the passionate testimony of Ronald Goldman’s father, a man that still clearly relives the horror of his son’s murder, will lead plenty to contemplate O.J.’s guilt anew. Still, the genius of O.J.: Made in America is that it as much as much as it seeks to answer “who did it?” it brings up a more important question: “Why do we keep doing this?”

[O.J. Simpson: Made in America debuts Saturday, June 11 on ABC, with the rest of the series airing on ESPN throughout the month of June.]

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