“O.J.: Made in America” is a sprawling epic on race in America

Director Ezra Edelman wants viewers to know one thing — in the case of The People v. O.J. Simpson, it was not Simpson who was on trial, but rather the city of Los Angeles. Edelman’s Oscar-nominated documentary O.J.: Made in America is an intelligent and provocative retelling of how decades of turmoil between black and white Los Angeles came to a head in one tumultuous trial.

“This is the story of Los Angeles more than anything else,” Edelman said in an interview with film critic Elvis Mitchell. “It’s all about what this place has brought in terms of the people who live here in these two very different L.A.s. And in this way, it is a microcosm of the country.”

Edelman portrays Los Angeles as a city with a split identity: There is its predominantly white side, portrayed through Hollywood glamour, and then its black regions, overrun by poverty and police brutality. O.J. gives an exhaustive history of racial conflict in Los Angeles, beginning in 1965, when Watts burned right next to the affluent white bubble of USC, until 1991, when the beating of Rodney King and the murder of Latasha Harlins occurred 13 days apart. This painful history is necessary to understand the black community’s sentiments preceding Simpson’s trial.

“You needed to emotionally connect with what was happening, with the struggles of black people in this city — in general, every day, also at the hands of the police,” Edelman said. “It couldn’t be ‘A happened, then B happened, then C happened.’ It’s not intellectual, it’s emotional.”

The black community’s pain culminated in Simpson’s 1995 murder trial, when decades of police racism made the defense’s accusation of an LAPD conspiracy seem plausible. The defense labored to portray Simpson as a symbol of black oppression; to make their defendant seem “more black,” they even planted photos of Simpson with black people in his house. Court discussions turned from the incriminating evidence against Simpson to racial injustice, and acquittal was framed as payback for Rodney King.

“People who didn’t have that experience in life, they didn’t understand why so many black people were connected to this, why they were rooting for [Simpson] — whether they were actually rooting for him or rooting for something bigger than him,” Edelman said.

When the predominantly black jury acquitted Simpson, for many black people signified that the justice system was finally treating them fairly. For most white people, however, it was an appalling case of a gruesome murderer getting off on “the race card.” Edelman conducted intimate interviews with important figures on both sides, stressing the need for empathy.

“Everyone dotted this landscape, and whether you’re a policeman, or an athlete, a celebrity, preacher, civil rights worker, whoever, we’re all living in this same space at the same time and in this extraordinary circumstance which has brought us all together,” Edelman said. “You need to understand where everyone was before that to get it.”

Complicating the trial further was Simpson, an unlikely figure to represent civil rights. Though the enormity of his commercial success broke ground for many black public figures, Simpson often distanced himself from the black community, famously stating, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” Throughout his career, he shunned opportunities to raise awareness of black issues, choosing instead to achieve mainstream appeal by integrating himself with white society. Edelman sympathizes somewhat with Simpson’s goal.

“I can defend the idea of ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.,’” Edelman said. “People go, ‘Oh, he wanted to be white even though he’s black,’ but that wasn’t the issue. He just wanted to not be held down because of his blackness, period.”

Simpson’s actions raise provocative questions: Do people have a responsibility to help uplift members of their own race? Is it delusional to try to erase racial identity? O.J. reveals Simpson’s complex character — he is a privileged black man who shunned his racial identity for commercial success, only to exploit his race to get out of a murder charge. His story remains relevant today, and its discussion on race extends far beyond the documentary’s hefty, nearly eight-hour duration.

“The true scope of it, the context of it, where all this came from — high and low, black and white — it didn’t start five years before [the trial], it started when the country started,” Edelman said. “There’s something in here that speaks to everybody, and I think that’s also what makes this story so compelling. This is the perfect American story, and I do think that in many ways, it is the defining cultural story of the last half century in America.”