By now you’ve heard about “O.J.: Made in America,” ESPN’s five-part documentary about O.J. Simpson’s life and alleged crimes, which wrangles a complex story set against a complex cultural backdrop. Part of what makes the documentary work is how widely each chapter varies from the previous one — the series tracks Simpson’s early life, his football stardom, the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, the trial that followed and its eventual aftermath. Each of these is its own sort of story, told its own sort of way using a mix of original interviews and archival footage. Episode to episode, that mix varies a great deal.
We took a shot list provided by our colleagues at ESPN Films (we’re in the same division of the company) and broke it down into general archival, news archival, archival interviews, original interviews and football.
For our purposes, “general archival” included bits such as Simpson’s outtakes with Marcus Allen. “News archival” is news footage from the time period, like that of the Eula Love shooting in L.A. and footage of the trial. “Archival Interviews” include all interviews that weren’t filmed expressly for the documentary, like one with a young O.J. Simpson about his retirement from football to pursue acting. “Football highlights” are self-explanatory and “original Interviews” were filmed for the documentary.
You can guess how much of the breakdown goes. Episode 1, for instance, spends 41 minutes on Simpson’s football career — no other episode lingers here for more than three minutes — because Simpson’s fame began on the field. At the same time, the episode focuses on the civil rights movement, particularly in Los Angeles, and Simpson’s separatist lifestyle as a superstar on USC’s campus, away from the movement. To capture moments such as this, we also broke the series down into thematic elements, including personal life, context, trial and football.
Here, “personal life” included bits like Simpson’s friend, Joe Bell talking about his childhood. “Trial” consists of archival news footage and interviews from the Nicole Brown Simpson murder trial. Football consists of his highlights from USC and the NFL or interviews specific to his football career.
There are nearly 34 minutes of contextual footage in Episode 1, such as race riots in Los Angeles or Simpson signing autographs on USC’s campus, to display the two contrasting worlds during the late ’60s.
Episode 2 gives 44 minutes of cultural context, as Simpson’s superstar status blossoms while the relationship between blacks and the LAPD continue to deteriorate. You see his iconic Hertz and Chevy commercials against a contrasting image of the Rodney King beating. Simpson’s personal life also gets around 45 minutes of footage, displaying the rich and powerful friends he sought while he pursued a post-NFL career in Hollywood, and his violent, abusive and controlling relationship with Nicole Brown Simpson is introduced.
Episode 3 begins with the murder scene of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. There are nearly 40 minutes of archival news footage and 20 minutes of general archival footage from the double murder and the ensuing trial. The Bronco chase is covered in this episode, as well as Simpson’s own friends saying he was guilty of the crime. This is the O.J. Simpson we are more used to witnessing.
An hour and 21 minutes of Episode 4 is dedicated to the trial, the most footage of any kind of any episode from OJMIA. It had 45 minutes of news archival footage and 26 minutes of original interviews about the trial. There is no footage on Simpson’s personal or football life in this episode. Episode 5 gives us the least amount of cultural context — by now, the stage hasn’t just been set, it’s being cleared — with 30 minutes dedicated to his personal life and 45 minutes for Simpson’s civil trial and his robbery case in 2007.
We’re used to seeing the post-murder trial O.J. Simpson — a broken-down, has-been felon the world presumes committed a pair of murders for which he was acquitted. A lot of things went into the story that took Simpson from stardom to prison, and OJMIA arranges those disparate pieces of the timeline in a way that, somehow, makes sense of them.