There’s an interview with director Paul Thomas Anderson, who grew up in the valley in Los Angeles, conducted after his LA stoner noir Inherent Vice was released in late 2014. He’s talking about the film’s narrator, Joanna Newsom, and how funny he thought it was to hear her sweet, innocent voice say foul words like “fuck” and “LAPD.”
In the second episode of ESPN’s documentary series O.J.: Made in America, the focus shifts to the often upsetting history of the Los Angeles Police Department, showing why its reputation remains so tarnished.
The LAPD of the 1970s and 1980s is one splotched with charges of racism, police brutality, and hyper-militarization, the same charges we’ve seen leveled against police forces from Ferguson to Baltimore to Chicago. What the documentary makes so plainly and devastatingly clear is the standard script that inevitably plays out: a predominantly white police force exercises unchecked power and violence against black citizens, and the systems put in place to defend those citizens ultimately fail them. Not only are systems failing them, but members of their own community fail them as well.
“[O.J.’s] voice was mute on black people and our salvation,” Civil Rights Activist Danny Bakewell said.
The first installment showed us from O.J.’s perspective why he so clearly rejected his blackness: to advance himself (and to a lesser degree, his family), and to attain every ounce of adulation and praise available. Tonight’s episode showed us how his rejected community fared. What was happening in South Central L.A., far from the safety of his Brentwood mansion?
Throughout the episode, there’s a methodical gathering of evidence by the filmmakers. Testimonies from veterans of the LAPD show both sides: some claim to have never seen racism on the force and dismiss any accusation of it; others think it was plainly there. All of them agree, though, that the department made poor decisions. And the facts back them up.
Case after case portrays an LAPD that systematically disregarded the dignity of black individuals and communities. Apartments destroyed in searches for a few ounces of weed. Men and women and children harassed on the streets. And finally, Rodney King brutally, mercilessly beaten by white cops after a car chase. An onlooker’s camera captures every strike and kick. But the script is unaltered: an all-white jury finds the cops not guilty. Riots and more violence follows.
But the violence was not confined to south-central Los Angeles. Director Ezra Edelstein shows in disturbing detail the violence O.J. inflicted on his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. Polaroids show bruises and gashes and swollen eyes. 911 Operator calls force us to witness her fear of a man who promised to cherish her.
Police are called to the Simpson home eight separate times, and eight separate times O.J. remains free of legal trouble. After the ninth call, an attempt is made to arrest him, but he flees, and he is eventually forgiven by a friend on the force.
“It leaves me feeling so hopelessly helpless,” Nicole wrote in her journal. The same police force that beats Rodney King nearly to death sees O.J. Simpson accused of domestic abuse against his wife and leaves it alone. Time and again, he is excused.
“When it turned to domestic violence, that’s when nobody wanted to hear it,” sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards said.
The idea of duality runs throughout this series and especially in this installment. Divisions between black and white, police and citizens, celebrity and anonymity, husbands and wives, men and women.
O.J.: Made in America is about blackness and self-preservation, and how the two interact with one another in a society that harbors prejudice against anyone who is not white. Within this dynamic is a story of a man who routinely beat his wife, who faced no consequences, who was above the law and knew it. The filmmakers demonstrate their understanding of that thread very well. But the fact that only a few women are included in the onscreen discussion reveals the documentary to be reflective of the flawed society it’s picking apart. Still, Part 2's extensive and unflinching exploration of a city in crisis is compelling both as commentary and entertainment.
David Ballard is a writer based in Florida. You should follow him on Twitter.