O.J.: Made in America ★★★


Pretty exhaustive (and exhausting) stuff, and to his credit, director Ezra Edelman leaves no glove unturned, providing the definitive account of its subject. In his review for the New Yorker, Richard Brody accurately compared O.J.: MIA to a database, the sort of film that ought to be searchable by keyword rather than necessarily watched from start to finish.

If you compare Edelman's film to a work of equal stature, Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, certain tendencies within the O.J. film become that much clearer. Despite having much in common (vital American subject, sprawling length, magisterial tone, intersection of race and politics), the two films diverge significantly in terms of tone and audience address. Lee's film is organized not just chronologically but also according to certain affective topoi -- sounds and images introduced not to inform per se, but to provoke anger, awe, or mournng. This is a register that Edelman simply doesn't engage, leading to the impression that his primary concern is journalism, not cinema.

What I saw, though, by watching O.J.:MIA as a work of front-to-back filmmaking, is that even for such a zipped-up piece of expository nonfiction, the film seems to lose its way in the final stretch, or to pull a kind of 180º turnaround in its reading of Simpson's meaning for the African-American community.

One of the primary achievements of this film is something that only distance could make visible. Why were so many white people so furious at the not-guilty verdict, and so many black people so thrilled? As we learn, Simpson was no pillar of the black community, and to a large extent he dissociated himself with his own racial identity in order to make himself acceptable to the dominant white culture, particularly at a time when racial consciousness was becoming a more unavoidable part of contemporary discourse. O.J. was "safe," inoffensive, somehow "not black." In other words, he was the alibi by which a racist power structure could congratulate itself on its acceptance of blackness.

So when O.J. killed his (white) wife and another man, it was seen as a betrayal of all the privileges white society had afforded this exceptional black man. He came to be hated far more than another African-American celebrity might have been. Meanwhile, African-Americans, in L.A. and around the country, were and are accustomed to a criminal justice system that condemns black people based on their race alone. To call the criminal justice system "biased" would be to imply that white people and African-Americans even occupy the same system, whereas members of either race are funnelled into a world the other never sees.

In light of this, many African-Americans thought O.J. was innocent, and many others didn't care. If he got away with murder, he was but one black man who had gamed the system, one that had killed or incarcerated generations of African-Americans who never had a fair chance. It was one instance of racial "justice," or at least reverse-injustice. Ironically, it was O.J. Simpson, who had never had much use for the African-American community, who became a symbol for white racism's day of reckoning. Or, as several activists explain, "payback for Rodney King."

None of this is entirely surprising. The O.J. Simpson trial captivated America for a reason, and scholar Linda Williams has already analyzed it as "racial melodrama," comparing it to Birth of a Nation and other spectacles involving white primal fears. What happens at the end, though, as Edelman concludes the film, has to do with the Nevada arrest, when a judge threw the book at Simpson for a true "third-rate burglary."

In a quick summation, we hear one juror and a couple of activists speaking for African-Americans, or at least that's how O.J.:MIA seems to frame it. They are washing their hands of O.J. now, going so far as to say "what he does doesn't represent African-Americans, it represents O.J." Why the turn to anti-collective individualism? Is it the times? Or is Edelman trying to portray black folks as fickle, backing a murderer one minute, throwing him away the next?

The whole thing left a bad taste. Is this where we're left after 467 minutes? I feel betrayed by this film, so certain in its objective non-tone, suddenly leaving us in the Nevada desert with a distinct lack of insight.