In 1960s America, a handsome black halfback from USC becomes the most famous athlete in the country. In the time of King and Malcolm and Ali and Nina–the unapologetic leaders of an assertive and vocal awakening of black pride–Orenthal James Simpson, Heisman winner and record-breaker, sees his race reflected in the mirror and runs.
“I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
Whether O.J. actually uttered this alleged quote is irrelevant. The spirit behind it is unassailable, and it drives the latest documentary in ESPN’s stellar “30 For 30” series.
O.J.: Made In America is a behemoth. The nearly eight-hour inspection of Simpson’s life and his place in American society has been split into five two-hour (including commercials) episodes that will air over the next week on ABC and ESPN, after the film had an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release in Los Angeles and New York earlier this month.
The first episode aired Saturday evening on ABC, and it started laying the pieces that will later collide in the trial of the century: O.J. Simpson, the shadow version of himself he created, the LAPD, the city of Los Angeles, and racism in America.
We meet the character O.J. Simpson before we meet the real man himself. We’re introduced at USC; he’s already lauded, already pleasant, and undoubtedly handsome. Director Ezra Edelman revels in his physical beauty, as well as the beauty of his play. The most thrilling parts of the first episode are the montages of his legendary runs at the University of Southern California and for the Buffalo Bills. Set to a spectacularly cinematic score, comparisons to legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov are offered, and they’re not unwarranted. There’s something very special about watching the best be the best. It’s rare, and with O.J., it aches.
That ache does not go away. Tension runs through the entire episode, mainly because we all know the ending. We know where this heads; we’ve had it spoiled many times over. The trial isn’t referenced explicitly, but it hangs over every frame, and the documentary aims to find the turns that led to that moment.
Anecdotes from Simpson’s childhood friends show a man who has always had self-preservation on his mind. If that means he steals his best friend’s steady girlfriend, fine. If that means he drops his friends in the principal’s office to save himself, that’s fine, too. It’s seen most prominently in his career at USC. O.J. was just trying to be O.J. He openly rejected the idea that he should compromise his career in any way by involving himself in racial politics.
The documentary explores the idea that O.J. saw race as something to negate, not embrace. In the most powerful segment of the episode, it’s explicitly stated that O.J. rejected his blackness. He didn’t see himself as black, and he didn’t want anyone else to, either. He was more than willing to drop his community if it meant an endorsement package with Hertz, acceptance into Bel Air society, or any and every other measure of success he set his eyes upon.
“What I’m doing is not for principles, or black people. I’m dealing first with O.J. Simpson, his wife, and his babies.”
The documentary would probably benefit from a straight-through viewing without commercial interruption (a sentiment its director has also expressed). But it is incredibly thorough, asking questions whose answers lead to even more questions. It shows the inherent suspicion cast toward a black man who wanted to be more than a child from the projects, how he needed to meticulously construct an image that made him palatable for white audiences, and how O.J. was more than willing to do it.
The episode ends with the introduction of Nicole Brown, hinting at the domestic violence that will eventually define their relationship–and Simpson himself. The first two hours of the series are a sensational start. Complex, thorough, compelling and heartbreaking, the shows portrays a man who climbed to the peaks of American society in part because he rejected part of his identity. If the first episode shows us O.J. looking in the mirror and running, the following hours will show us where he runs.
David Ballard is a freelance writer based in Florida. You should follow him on Twitter.