RECOMMENDED: "O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA" ON HULU
"O.J.: Made in America" received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, and seems poised to make history in more ways than one. It's ESPN's very first-ever Oscar nomination and the longest film ever to be nominated for any Academy Award.
This brilliant, dense, five-part, seven-and-a-half hour miniseries - produced under ESPN's "30 for 30" banner - feels like several different films all interlaced and melded into one complete, grandiose whole. It's a chronicle of an athletic icon's life and career; a detailed case file on a years-long double murder investigation and trial; an analysis of race and fame in 1990s America; a treatise on police brutality and the LAPD's checkered history; a character study of an intensely complex, troubled individual and an example of ceaselessly compelling true-crime storytelling. The breadth and expertise of the film feels almost supernatural at times. It takes the nearly impossible job of summarizing and boiling down decades of separate, chaotic incidents into a single, coherent narrative, and makes it seem simple, like the only rational, logical way to organize this information. It may be one of the best historical documentaries I've ever seen.
We were fortunate to get not one but TWO tremendous O.J. Simpson-themed pieces of entertainment last year - the ESPN doc was released concurrently with FX's similarly-terrific docu-drama limited series "The People vs. OJ Simpson," and what's most remarkable is how well the two productions complement one another. The FX show rendered history in an impressionistic, emotional way - here's why O.J. felt like it mattered at the time, here's how it played out in its particular cultural moment, and here's a personal take on the stories of all of these outsized figures.
"Made in America" takes a big step back and shows you all the context, what was already happening in the world before O.J. and how the case fit into this larger picture, and became an essential part of the story. It not only makes you feel smarter about this particular case, and this man's life, but about life in the city of Los Angeles, about the way that racial and social resentments build and fester over generations, about the development of advertising in the 20th Century, even about college football.
I lived through nearly all of these events, and have read about them and seen other films about them, but I still feel like I have a significantly expanded and more nuanced understanding of what really happened after viewing the movie.
Structurally, it's not all that different from the films of Ken Burns, or Errol Morris, or any of our other great historical documentarians. Vintage footage is combined with observations from talking heads to walk the viewer through O.J.'s story, from his youth in San Francisco's Potrero Hill projects to his superstar years with the USC Trojans and Buffalo Bills to his careers as a pitchman and Hollywood actor to his trial for homicide and its aftermath.
Director Ezra Edelman really elevates the format, though, focusing on incredibly pertinent and meaningful imagery, and seemingly only selecting the most compelling speakers and natural storytellers to provide his chorus. Filmmaker Peter Hyams, who befriended Simpson while directing the film "Capricorn One," may not have known him as well as others, but beautifully captures the moment he came to the realization that his pal was a murderer, and tells a terrifically skin-crawling story about seeing him on the streets of Brentwood after the verdict.
"O.J.: Made in America" is a lengthy undertaking, and can be mentally overwhelming at times, but it moves briskly, and I managed to watch it all in a single weekend. It's absolutely essential viewing, about as observant and skillful and relevant as any film released last year.
Title: "O.J.: Made in America"
Where to Watch: Hulu
Episodes: 5 parts, divided into 3 Hulu episodes
Runtime: 7 hours and 47 minutes