'O.J.: Made In America' Charts Simpson's Rise And Fall

Jun 11, 2016
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn to another polarizing figure, O.J. Simpson. From a much-admired football star and actor to his shocking star turn as a murder suspect in an obsessively watched trial, he's been the object of fascination for journalists and the public for decades now.

Just a few months ago, the trial for the murder of his former wife and friend was the subject of an acclaimed series on the FX channel, all of which might lead you to think there is nothing more to say about O.J. Simpson. But ESPN is betting that's not true.

A new documentary, "O.J.: Made In America" debuts on ABC tonight and airs all next week on ESPN as part of its "30 For 30" documentary series totaling nearly eight hours of programming. And NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans has seen all of it, and he says it may be the best documentary ESPN has ever done.

Welcome, Eric, thanks for coming.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Yeah, happy to be here.

MARTIN: Well, the obvious question for me is why do we need another exhaustive examination of O.J. Simpson's life, especially after that FX - a scripted - it has to be said - miniseries American crime story, but many of the principles involved who are still with us say that it really was very, very accurate.

DEGGANS: ESPN's "Made In America" is much greater a scope than FX's drama series. I mean, "American Crime Story," the FX series, started with the discovery of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman's bodies and ended with Simpson's acquittal.

But ESPN's documentary goes back to his childhood growing up in a San Francisco housing project, through his life as a college and pro football star and all the way to him landing in jail about eight years ago.

So what we wind up with is the most detailed and revealing look at the arc of his life and his highly publicized trials and bouts with the law that I have ever seen on television.

MARTIN: Why do you think people might want to watch this? I mean, what are some of the things that people might learn?

DEGGANS: Well, I think what we learn from watching this documentary is that the story of O.J. Simpson's rise and fall is also a story of how American society has changed how it sees a whole bunch of different issues over the last 40 years - I mean, everything from the nature of fame and the fame that comes from football, especially to the nature of race in America, and the handling of spousal abuse. Now, the centerpiece of the story is going to be Simpson's criminal trial for the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.

And at one point, we see photos of Brown's bruised face, and we hear these allegations of abuse as their marriage deteriorated, and we see how some elements of the news media actually helped O.J. spin this story at a time when America treated spousal abuse very differently. So we've got a clip from the documentary of sports talk show host Roy Firestone interviewing Simpson before the murders took place.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA")

O J SIMPSON: You know, when I look at it, really, it wasn't that big of a fight. The point being...

ROY FIRESTONE: The point I'm making, Juice...

SIMPSON: Yeah.

FIRESTONE: ...Is that it got to such a point that you were portrayed in the press for a while there like a wife-beater.

SIMPSON: Well, yeah, well, and that bothered me. You know, the day after this was over, you know, we looked at - we said, you know we had a fight. We were both guilty.

MARTIN: Wow.

DEGGANS: Knowing what we know now, that sounds very different.

MARTIN: I'm just taking that in for a minute here (laughter). And also, what about the racial aspect of it? I mean, there are lots of things that have changed in the area, too.

Do we learn anything new or is there any different way of looking at how race played as a factor in Simpson's rise and fall as a celebrity?

DEGGANS: Sure. Well, you know, because the story is so long, we get this real arc to Simpson's relationship to race. So during the height of his fame, you know, as a sports star, actor, pitch man, he avoided racial issues just as other prominent black sports stars were taking these stands for civil rights.

And he was seen by white America as this safe black person - you know, somebody who would never bring up issues of race in a really negative way. And then he gets charged with murdering his wife and her friend, and his defense team uses allegations of racism against the LAPD to win his acquittal.

MARTIN: What do you think makes this documentary so valuable?

DEGGANS: Well, what's interesting is they take some takes that people might have on his career or his life, and they try to show you multiple different sides of it. So you will see some people who are friends of O.J. who came to regret standing by him. You will see some people who supported him more consistently.

And what's interesting, too, you know, when we talk about race, we see Simpson even turning back to the black community when white America rejects him after his murder acquittals. So it's almost like people saw the racial struggle that they wanted to see in him regardless of where they stood in that struggle.

So some black people saw his legal victory, for example, in the murder trial as a blow against unfair policing, even though some of Simpson's closest associates admitted they thought he was guilty. And we see both of those perspectives in the documentary.

MARTIN: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talking about the five-part program "O.J.: Made In America." It debuts on ABC tonight, and it airs all next week on ESPN as part of its "30 For 30" documentary series. Eric, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.