The O.J. Simpson trial, 21 years after its dramatic conclusion, continues to be a rorschach test for Americans. It was a grisly murder, tabloid sensation, transformative moment in modern media, examination of celebrity privilege, platform for civil-rights protestors, referendum on years of entrenched institutional racism, eye-opening look at spousal abuse, and a year’s worth of late night comedy fodder.
And so, while most retrospectives of the trial focus on the sensational moments, courtroom surprises, and personality-driven narratives that dominated the headlines of the time, a true examination of the Trial of the Century requires a much wider lens. With its epic, five-part, eight-hour ESPN documentary OJ: Made in America, director Ezra Edelman and producer Caroline Waterlow have not only revisited the year-long legal slugfest that captivated the nation, but reassembled and re-contextualized the entire 50 years of personal and political history that helped make the trial such a flashpoint in modern American life.
“Last year was the 20th anniversary of the verdict, and the reactions to the verdict were very divided on racial lines. There was all this footage of some people celebrating and some people being shocked and it was mostly divided between white and black,” Waterlow, the Emmy-winning producer of the film, told Inverse. “That was interesting to us, because the two groups don’t totally understand each other. So we said, let’s go back and unpack that and figure out what that is. And that required laying quite a lot of groundwork in terms of O.J. as a person and his identity and his career, and this larger context of American culture and Los Angeles and the long history between the LAPD and black community.”
Ultimately, that meant not only detailing the unique journey of the man at the center of the doc — Simpson was an iconic football legend who became a TV pitchman and actor, all in an effort to transcend race in a 1960s and ‘70s defined by those issues — but the greater sociopolitical movements that shaped the land into which Simpson would be born.
“We just kept kind of kept going further back, and it kept all still making sense and feeling connected and to continue to give you more and more history,” Waterlow said. “Starting with the Watts Riots even earlier than that, black migration from the south to California, which was supposed to be this wonderful place to live but in fact wasn’t. So all of that felt connected and felt like it made you experience the trial in a different way.”
OJ never wanted to be a civil rights icon, and then during the trial, his defense team turned him into one, by tying his case to the larger struggle against the LAPD.
It’s the inherent irony of the trial, that it becomes a trial that is a referendum on the LAPD and black community and race in Los Angeles and the disparity in the justice system. But O.J. had never been someone who had really sought out certainly activism or even kind of leadership or presence in the black community.
It’s almost strange that this became the case that was the referendum, because maybe he wasn’t the right person, or the right situation, to make the champion or beneficiary of the cause.
I’ve heard Ezra say that if O.J. Simpson was going to pick a moment in time to be tried for murder, this was probably the best moment in time and place. Los Angeles in 1994, coming on the heels of the riots after the Rodney King verdict. I hope we did a good job, certainly in the second episode, you had this heating up, one event after another, thats creating a bigger and bigger rift between the black community and the LAPD in Los Angeles. There’s more and more tension building. Rodney King was one we all know the most, because it was caught on video and sent it on the world, where some of these other events were contained in LA. Now we’re more connected on these things, through social media, but there was clearly this mounting tension and moment. And Johnny Cochran was part of that history in Los Angeles as well.
The film has so much footage, and so many interviews. And some was heavy stuff — including photos of Nicole Brown Simpson’s slashed throat. What were the challenges in getting all that stuff?
We had an amazing archival producer who worked for us, there were two producers who worked for us and they divided their time between trying to get people to talk on camera and trying to gather archival material. Obviously O.J. had a huge media presence in the ‘70s. He did commercials and movies and was commentating as a sportscaster, he was everywhere, so there was a lot to choose from.
I would say some of the harder stuff was, you’re always trying to find more intimate family things. Some of his friends that we interviewed, they provided some material, and a family member did as well. You’re not going to go to a network or go to Getty Images and find those things. Those are building relationships with people in the story and people who were close to him.
Obviously, there’s two big trials: The criminal trial was the main one, but there was the civil trial as well. When you have a trial, a lot of material and evidence is generated by the trial. So there’s a lot you find that way. Things like those photos of Nicole that she had taken of herself with bruises and scrapes, those were evidence. We had the benefit of a lot of material that got gathered.
We ended up finding a couple of really great archival interviews with O.J. that were unexpected, and that helped a lot because obviously he’s not interviewed in the film. And a lot of it had to do with getting close to people who were close with him. There was this man who wrote a book about documenting the trial, called American Tragedy. He was the one who shot the footage of O.J. coming home after the trial. Theres this welcome home party for him, and the guy, Lawrence Schiller, had shot that.
One of the things that blew me away was the audio of him talking during the trial, and his trial diary.
That was also Lawrence Schiller. He had been given access to O.J. I think they were social friends and he was also a filmmaker, and he wrote this book. He did those interviews with OJ in jail. He knew so much.
Was there any thought to reaching out to OJ and Nicole’s children?
Yeah, I think people have pretty much left them alone, and so we never really thought that that was something we would get, and we didn’t really pursue it that hard. We know that the children did find out about this film being made, and were sort of interested to know about it,. I think the ESPN 30 for 30 brand is a known quantity, and they make good films, so they were interested to know about us and what we were doing, but they weren’t ready to talk to anyone about this. There’s a little bit of footage, some photos of the children going to O.J.’s custody after the trial. They all moved to Florida with him, and we show that part of his life as being a difficult time, so it must have been quite hard. I think people have respected their privacy.
Given all you learned, did your fundamental opinion of him and the trial change at all?
I was in college when this happened, but I had a pretty good memory of the trial, but I didn’t watch it every day. I didn’t know all the details. It was going on in the background and was a pop culture thing happening. I went into it ready to hear it all fresh and take it all in in a new way. I will say that I didn’t quite understand — you hear the 911 calls, for example, and see the photos of Nicole — the level to which the domestic abuse was documented and understood by people. That I was surprised by. I think you can get to a place where you can feel like you have your opinions whether OJ did or not, but you can understand how this trial played out the way it did. And you can understand the way the jury came to its opinion. And there’s a way to understand the trial and verdict in a new way.
OJ: Made in America airs its final episode on ESPN on Saturday night, and is available to stream now. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.