In documentaries like this one, there are certain rare moments where someone is thrust into the spotlight and reveals a stunning lack of self-awareness. Enter Mark Fuhrman, a self-admitted racist detective who consistently used racial epithets on the job. The filmmakers ask him about it, and he fumbles and rambles around, before frowning like a Dachshund puppy caught making a mess in the house. He finishes with this gem of a line: “It is what it is.”
It is what it is.
I don’t even know how you would categorize the noise that came out of my mouth when he said that. A laugh? A guffaw? A honk?
It doesn’t matter, because it’s a perfect example of what’s made this documentary excellent so far. A great documentary shouldn’t overtly editorialize, it shouldn’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting. A great documentary knows how to let the footage, the documents, and the commentators do the work. Time and again in this installment, the third of five, veterans of the LAPD and members of the media dug their own graves all by themselves.
There’s an element of disbelief running through all of it. People like LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti comment on it through archival footage and after-the-fact interviews, saying how odd all this was, how incomprehensible, how unbelievable. We can see that they’re right. But the documentary also quietly, confidently rebukes them, showing plainly that, no, something very believable did in fact happen: a woman was brutally murdered by her violent husband after many desperate pleas for help went unanswered by the LAPD.
The stark timeline of the night of the murder is so deeply unsettling. Fact after fact in plain white text laid over the evening’s landmarks. Director Ezra Edelman exercises pitch perfect restraint and allows us to fill in the gaps.
“We can’t believe what’s happening. There was nothing ever, ever in the past that would show O.J. was capable of doing what he was doing.”
That comment by sportscaster Al Michaels during the white Bronco parade is another one of those Fuhrman-esque laugh-out-loud moments. Maybe he didn’t see this coming. Michaels was only exposed to the Shadow O.J. trotted out when a camera was around. But O.J. was publicly accused of domestic violence. He and Nicole were publicly estranged. Remove his celebrity, forget his beautiful cutbacks at USC, and this wasn’t much of a stretch at all.
But if you’re interested in a stretch, Johnnie Cochran has just the thing for you. The episode dives into the trial, introducing all the players, and delivers a hell of a punchline to all the prior discussions about race and identity.
To set the scene: the jury is visiting O.J.’s house, for some reason, and before they arrive, Johnnie Cochran and company stage one of the most despicable Trading Spaces episodes ever, replacing all the photos featuring O.J. and his white friends (but mostly just O.J. alone) with ones showing his black friends and family.
The same community he so routinely ignored became the potential key to his freedom.
“All of a sudden he became black,” Fred Levinson says.
There are a couple really transcendent segments in tonight’s two hours. When Robert Kardashian reads O.J’s proto-suicide note over a highlight reel of O.J’s early life, it’s hard not to be emotional. Like I’ve said before, to see the best be the best is a rare and beautiful thing. But then you remember everything he did to capitalize on those moments, to stretch them into a career and it feels like cannonballing into a pool that turns out to be much colder than you thought.
That shock isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Author Walter Mosley said something near the end of the episode that is indicative of what’s to come:
“I think you find among black people an incredible amount of forgiveness for anybody living through the pain of being black in America.”
We’ve seen O.J. stay silent in the face of many indignities, but we’ve also seen his relentless drive toward self-preservation. To know that this pivot is coming, that he is going to co-opt pain to once put himself before everyone else, is hard to swallow.
But after all, it is what it is, right?
David Ballard is a writer based in Florida. You should follow him on Twitter.