This is the year we saw the proliferation of O.J. Simpson in the media, at least the kind not seen since the 1994-95 period when the actual court case was taking place where he was accused of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Of course, I’m referring to the series debut of American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson from infamous show runner Ryan Murphy and the latest ESPN 30 for 30 series; O.J.: Made in America from director Ezra Edelman. This has brought back somewhat of a dumb debate that I’ve thought of from time to time but never really tested. That debate being which is better, dramatic license through narrative retellings of real life events or documentary filmmaking?
To be fair, I have to present one caveat for this discussion and it maybe something that you yourself are wondering. Documentary filmmaking isn’t necessarily fact; I don’t believe that to be true. I do think that documentary filmmaking has the ability to make arguments more convincing as it relates to facts because for the most part we’re viewing the action happen and the people talk directly to us. With dramatic license we have to spend time figuring out what’s real and what’s fake. Admittedly at times I find it easier to get to the emotional truth of a narrative film than a documentary, but that isn’t the point that we are trying to make here. So how can I trust one to be more truthful than the other? To be honest, I can’t but I can only do what I do with all films, take what it gives me at face value, process it and eventually decide for myself what I believe to be real and more importantly what I think the filmmaker wanted me to understand about his perspective on the topic.
It’s been the year of O.J. so far and the key differences between these two pieces of film are ultimately their focus.
In Ryan Murphy’s version of events that is presented in The People Vs OJ Simpson, our focus as viewers is solely on the trial itself, starting at the night of the murder all the way to his eventually acquittal and release. In O.J.: Made In America; Ezra Edelman gives us the life of the man himself. From his childhood, to his football and film career to the trial, his life after the trial and then again when he was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping in 2007.
Edelman’s discussion of the story of O.J. Simpson is a more of a complete look at this icon in American culture. His rise, fall and what lessons and reflections we’ve had because of it all. We watch as we’re given a massive amount of context on why so much of what happened to him unfolded the way that it did. The film allowed us the privilege of being able to ask a lot of questions a lot more important than “Did he really do it?”, but instead we are forced to examine all the circumstances that allowed him to get away with it.
Was it just because he was black and after all that had happened recently (i.e. Rodney King) the community wanted “revenge” for all of the general injustice they endure?
Was it because he was wealthy?
Was it because the case was this high profile?
And perhaps most importantly was it irresponsible on the part of the civil rights movement at the time to “attach” themselves to the O.J. Simpson case? Particularly because O.J. himself never had a political bone in his body, and never really ever lifted a finger for civil rights in America?
Edelman’s work makes us consider everything. Makes us look back and question if it was right for him to be given the treatment he got. It actively does more to implicate him, if only by the enormous avalanche of testimonials that we get to see and sheer length of the piece (It clocks in at 7.5 hours, WITHOUT commercials). We watch as jurors, friends, people who worked for Simpson and more talk about incidents where he pretty much implicates himself. This in itself adds more to the plot that is O.J. Simpson. It becomes bigger than being simply “The Case of the Century” and what was spawned out of it all but it becomes a study of the man, which in and of itself is the most interesting thing about this film.
With Murphy’s dramatized retelling the element that works the best is that it gives us a narrative of a man’s attempt to win his very freedom. The series never implicates him in any way we didn’t see done in the actual court case. We never get that “gotcha” scene where we watch Simpson with a bloody knife or confessing in any sort of way that you would imagine, or people are pining for years later. It’s just a great court-room drama where we watch on as a man fights for his life and we get to see some great practitioners of the law do their job. We watch on as twist after twist that quite honestly even the most gifted of writers couldn’t make up, unravel in front of us, and that’s where the true entertainment value of it lies. It all starts and ends with the court case, so at the end of it all for better or for worse and without judgment, you feel like you’ve won.
In American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, the O.J. case feels part sensational pop culture fan fiction as well as race discussions of the 90s. While O.J.: Made In America allows for a more nuanced look at both race relations and about a man who captivated the eyes, minds and hearts of the people who had also never considered the community he needed to rely on to survive until it suited him. The documentary doesn’t just discuss the issues around race relations at the time but also how O.J. viewed his own identity as it relates to his race.
So is it wrong to ask the question as to which piece of work is intrinsically better?
I’d be forced to say yes because both are amazing pieces of work and deserve to be viewed on their own merits. However, I do have to admit that my own curiosity about the documentary holds a grip on me that I couldn’t have imagined. Not because of the court case on its own since watching the likes of Courtney B. Vance’s stellar performance of Johnnie Cochran in the fictionalized version was something to behold but mainly because it shows us something bigger than this one moment that captured the world’s attention. The documentary took us past the pop culture bubble and into some sort of truth that very few have tried to discuss as it relates to this man and his world. We watched on and didn’t judge but rather tried to understand all the implications of the events in his life and how they informed that fateful night in Brentwood and everything that happened after that.
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