"O.J. Simpson: Made in America," is a five-part documentary that explores not only the murder trial of O.J. Simpson but also his life and the world in which he rose to fame.
For director Ezra Edelman, though, the film is so much more than that.
It's actually, he said, about "everyone."
"People respond to this based on who they are generationally, racially, from a gender standpoint and personally, when it comes to how they engaged with O.J.," he told ABC News. "I think that it messes with people’s minds when you’ve experienced so much pleasure because of this person, whether it’s watching him play football or he made you laugh in 'The Naked Gun,' you’re like, 'Oh, but did he do that?' That somehow makes us all complicit in a way, and it makes us really uncomfortable."
Simpson, now 68 and serving a 33-year prison sentence for armed robbery, pleaded not guilty in 1994 to murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. He was acquitted after a nine-month trial.
Edelman spoke at length to ABC News about the making of the film, how people have responded to it so far and what's next.
This is more than seven hours of film. How did you make the decision to cut it down into five parts rather than leave it as one long documentary?
There was always this level of "How do we find a way to tell one long story?" I know that, as much as I believe it to be one long documentary and I want people to absorb it as much, I know that people aren’t watching anything for eight hours in a row and if something was going to be broadcast in five parts, they need to be sure that those individual parts have some individual resonance on their own. So we were cognizant enough about that and I think that there’s enough of the chronology of the story that gives you natural breaks. In fact, before it was five parts, it was three parts. It was everything leading up to the murder and then the trial and then everything after the trial. So that was in the initial operating principle.
You did a great job of contextualizing not just the trial but who O.J. Simpson was before the trial. How did you decide what to include?
I think there was that sort of sense of "What is underexamined but also relevant?" And I think it helps that I do have a sports background and I knew who O.J. was and appreciated him as an athlete, but I also understood what that period of his life was at USC, both in creating him as this transcendent football player and ultimately as a pitchman but also what that was in juxtaposition to the world around him at the time. He came up as a black athlete [when many] black athletes of prominence were becoming increasingly political. I already knew of O.J.'s choice to not go that route, to blaze his own trail, and so it was hard to ignore the very apparent metaphor of USC as a place located where it is — next door to Watts, which exploded in violence during the riots a year and a half before O.J. gets there. Those all things have to do with the story that we're telling. This is a Los Angeles story. I saw that pretty quickly and early.
Right. By explaining what happened in the past, more contemporary events seem to take on deeper meaning and, in some ways, make more sense.
This is where the length of this story is necessary. If you watch a lot of the things that have been done about O.J. in the last 20 years, it's like, OK, so here's an hour or an hour-and-a-half treatment, and it’s about the trial and there’s one line about, "Oh, he’s a former football star," and you have one shot of Rodney King getting beaten in 1991, and that’s all the context you get. And so intellectually, I can describe to you something, but that is not the same thing as emotionally living through it again and trying to empathize with the people involved and reliving this history yourself. So you can experience the horrors of it. You can experience the frustrations of the community. You can experience this injustice. Without that, that doesn’t mean much when you get to [juror] Carrie Bess talking about why she voted to acquit O.J. It’s the same with O.J. You have to live emotionally through seeing a guy so beautiful and graceful as an athlete, so handsome and charming as a pitchman and as an actor to really appreciate not just this level of stardom but the level of goodness sort of surrounding him. That really informs the shock of those murders in 1994 and the implication that he might have been responsible for them. You need to live through that.
Making this documentary had to be an enormous undertaking, personally. Why do it?
I keep referencing the Edmund Hillary quote about why he climbed Mt. Everest: Because it was there. I mean, I didn't up one day deciding I wanted to tell this story. I didn’t have a burning desire to tell a story about O.J. ESPN approached me and asked me, and I initially said, "I don’t want to do that," because what more is there to say? And I think there’s a level to which I also understood – and I said this as much – that there's going to be hazard pay involved in this because I don’t want to live through this. It’s just a dark, depressing tale. So yeah, I wouldn’t want to do it again but having said that, it’s also the richest American cultural tale of the past 50 years. So for me, as someone who was a history major and is a storyteller, it has everything I’m interested in. So to be given a canvas like this was also incredibly attractive.
You spoke to 72 people for this — friends, attorneys, jurors. How did you convince so many people to talk to you?
It was really hard. You're talking about a lot of people who have metaphorically built this wall up about them since the trial, and they don’t want people like me scaling it. And so we were paying for the sins of the media and how they covered this for those two years and afterwards, which I think was rather simplistic and sensationalist. So it was getting in the door. If you could get someone to actually engage with you and have a conversation and say, "That’s not what we’re doing. It’s long. I’m not talking about just the trial, I’m not relitigating that. I’m talking about all this history and all this context, and this is a historical document, and you're a part of this history whether you like it or not." Yes, it’s sort of hubristic for me to be like, "This is the definitive take on this."
But it is.
It is, but there's hundreds of people who have called these people up over the years and said, "I’m doing this thing ..." Why am I different? How do you convince somebody? You do your homework. You talk about how thoughtful you’ve been in your approach and how sober-minded you are and what you care about — and it’s not the things that other people seemed to have cared about. I think that resonated with people. Also, thankfully, just enough time had passed where people were finally ready to or were comfortable enough to sit down and engage with this for the first time in a real way. A lot of people hadn’t done this for 20 years.
Were there people who didn't speak to you whom you wish had?
Sure. A lot of people. I would’ve loved to have spoken to people in O.J.'s family outside of his cousin who did talk. I would've loved to have talked to his first wife. Obviously I would’ve loved to have talked to Chris Darden, who wasn’t interested in participating. Those were the main people that stuck out. But there was an understanding from the get-go that there would certain people that would basically be impossible for us to get to sit down with.
I was shocked to see Mark Fuhrman participated. What was it like to sit across from someone who said horrible things and almost give him a platform to explain himself?
That was a challenging dynamic. He, probably like a lot of people, didn’t want to do that. Would you? And I think that for me it really was important to understand that this was a conversation I was having with somebody who was going to be impossible for me to truly understand. I wasn’t there to judge him. This wasn’t a referendum on who Mark Fuhrman is or was. It was, "OK, I want you to tell me about your experiences during this time, and I want you to reflect on that — about your role in this trial, your role in that investigation. Yes, how you were portrayed, far be it for me to judge who you are and whether you have certain prejudices." That’s the main thing. He was the extreme example of the philosophy with this undertaking. I tried to empathize with everyone and really give everyone a fair shake as far as who they were and what they were in this story because if nothing else, this story is so much about who we are and what our world views are and what we bring to this story.
That’s what made this. There was such divisiveness that if I could figure out a way to cut through that, to have people who were on this side for the first time see what was going on with people on this side, that’s the whole point. So for me to further add to the stereotype of Mark Fuhrman as a caricature of a racist, that’s not what I’m doing. That's not what I’m interested in. By the way, I wasn’t sitting across from a monster. I was sitting across from a human being. He was a cop for 30 years, and far be it for me — with whoever he was, wherever he grew up and whatever his background was — to go, "Are you a bad person?"
Was there anything that didn't make the documentary that you wish had?
I mean, I made a seven-hour, 45-minute long movie. If there were things I wanted in the movie, they're in the movie.
Was there anything that felt like a real get to you?
Yes and no. All the time and never, because you’re in an interview and you're just focused on the next thing. Everything that came out of Carl Douglas’ mouth, you're like, "Really? Oh, that's good." So you’re very aware of that dynamic when you're sitting with certain people — how it’s specifically going to play into the narrative, ultimately, that's different, but yeah, there are always those times when you perk up.
I also really enjoyed hearing from juror Yolanda Crawford. I almost got a sense from her that she was disappointed in the prosecution more than anything else.
Right. Millions of people, when they think of that jury, they go, "Oh, they were just looking for a reason to acquit." She seemed to be someone who actually believed that O.J. was both capable of committing those crimes if not actually guilty of those crimes, but she also was someone who did her job as the juror. The burden of proof is on the prosecution in a case like this, and the prosecution, in her mind, messed up more than once. That was why she voted the way she voted. And that was different than why [juror] Carrie Bess, another black woman [voted to acquit]. [So when people say,] "Oh they’re all the same. They all voted because of the history," no. They're two different people, they absorbed what was happening in two different ways, but they came to the same conclusion. I think that’s pretty important for people to see.
By the way, she was 22 years old [at the time of the trial]. And you know, for her to have remembered the details [was tough]. I still love when I asked her that question about how the jurors could only have deliberated for 3 1/2 hours after nine months of a trial. She crushes me. She’s like, "How many days was it again? 267? 266 nights?"
The subject of domestic violence is pervasive in this film. Do you expect this to spark further conversation? Listening to those 911 tapes was a visceral experience.
That’s a perfect example of — you could be told something intellectually. He has a history of doing this, but then when you hear someone screaming and you hear the fear in her voice and you hear the rage in his, it's different. You need to sort of experience that. And then you go, "Oh, well that’s real." You get it. It courses through your body that makes you get it in a way that you don't otherwise, and that’s really revealing.
Who you are really speaks to how you respond to the film. So you, as a woman, fortunately or unfortunately, are more affected by that part of the story potentially than a black person from L.A. who has had run-ins with the police are going to be more affected by this history and the painful sort of reminder of that. I’ve been in a room watching people, and it’s like, "You’re affected here, you’re affected there," and it’s all terrible.
There's a lot of pain to go around.
As much as I want people to watch this story, and I do. I want everyone to watch it. Be forewarned, it’s not a comedy.
I tried so hard to unsee the images you shared of the crime scene. Those, especially when paired with descriptions of how the victims were killed, were truly sickening.
It’s very hard because [to make this movie] you both have to make a choice and have a real purpose to what you're doing and why you’re doing it. Having said that, you also have to emotionally disconnect. I’ve watched this thing thousands of times, and if I were affected by the crime scene photos or Rodney King getting beaten or Nicole screaming, if that affected me the same way every time I watched this, I wouldn't be able to leave my house. Unfortunately there's a callousness that had to set in for me to just be engaged continuously in trying to tell the story. So yeah, now that people are engaging with it, it’s like, "Oh yeah, right. Yeah, this is terrible to watch." But it doesn't affect me anymore.
There's already Oscar buzz surrounding the documentary, which was briefly in theaters but is really being rolled out on TV. What do you make of that?
It's all silly to me. Sure, it's great, and I’m flattered that anyone thinks the film is of a certain quality that it should be considered for any award, but I can’t control how it’s rolled out. Frankly I was much happier that the movie was released in the theaters even for a small amount of time for people to engage with it in its truest form. I experienced it with the festivals that we went to, sitting the theater with that energy, having people during a couple intermissions talk about what they're seeing — that makes it a special event. Having said that, I don't expect anyone to spend eight hours of their day going to see a movie in the theater. But that was the thing that I found more of a trip.
In the end, the story makes you wonder about how we, as a society, treat celebrities and how we give them —
A pass? That's us, man. That's about us.
Part one of the five-part series premieres tonight, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. The full episodic documentary will then air on several dates from June 14 to 18 on ESPN.
ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ABC News.