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‘The People V. O.J.’ Vs. ‘OJ: Made in America’: When Truth Trumps Fiction
July 20, 2016  | By Alex Strachan

Sometimes, when you watch a program is just as telling as whether you chose to watch in the first place.

The People v. O.J. Simpson, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski and Ryan Murphy’s dramatized account of the infamous 1994 murder trial in Los Angeles, ran the table in last week’s Emmy nominations, with 22 nods in 14 categories.

The haul included multiple nominations for lead actor, supporting actor, directing, editing and writing. The People v. O.J. scored four more nominations overall than Fargo, also from FX, in one of the most competitive miniseries fields in recent years.

The initial reviews were in sync with Emmy voters’ opinions, which isn’t always the case. The People v. O.J. debuted in February, to 43 positive reviews, two mixed and no negatives, according to the media aggregator site MetaCritric.

The reaction from critics and Emmy voters was much the same: The People v. O.J. was a work of genuine quality, and demanded to be taken seriously.

Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown (left) — as Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden — are all nominated for their performances, and rightly so, especially Brown, who had arguably the most thankless role. I was, and remain, less enthused about Cuba Gooding, Jr. and John Travolta, both Emmy nominated for their performances as O.J. Simpson and Robert Shapiro.

It doesn’t matter, though. For all the uneven performances and silliness of that first hour — that first hour was, for me, laughably bad, almost enough to stop watching altogether — The People v. O.J. found a way to leave a lasting impression.

Much like the trial itself, it found its footing over time. By its second and third hours, The People v. O.J. felt more important, more meaningful, somehow.

The story focused less on the confused frenzy of that first night and more on the trial, examining it from all angles, from the seemingly trivial — jury selection, which more-or-less decided the entire case right there — to the final verdict, which set off shock-wave reverberations that are being felt to this day, 22 years later.

The People v. O.J. managed to do something unique. It took one TV’s tackiest, most facile genres — the miniseries based on real-life events — and elevated it to the level of high drama. This was one of the most familiar criminal trials of the TV age, and yet The People v. O.J. was full of surprise and revelation. This was no bland recounting of recent history. The People v. O.J. was a living, breathing document of a place and moment in time.

It had the advantage of going home with the characters, with made-up dialogue and fictionalized, dramatized confrontations. We learned about Marcia Clark’s home life and pressures of being a mother to two young children while wilting in the glare of a white-hot media spotlight. We got to see Chris Darden socialize with his neighbors over a family barbeque, while discussing issues of race and justice. We saw Johnnie Cochran, in his early career as the first African-American assistant district attorney in Los Angeles County, being stopped and interrogated by police in front of his terrified young daughters, and his being profoundly shaken by the experience.

No documentary can do that. That’s the power of fiction. It’s scriptwriters using creative license, based on hindsight and supposition, to show what happened away from the TV cameras, off the public record, those small moments in life that shape who we are and how we react when faced with situations larger than ourselves.

Viewed in this light, The People v. O.J. is worth every one of its 22 nominations, even the ones I may take personal issue with. (A reader on this site posted his complaint, perfectly understandable in my view, that many fine performances in Roots were overlooked by Emmy voters. That’s one of the inevitable, if unintended, side effects when there is a surfeit of fine performances to choose from, and only a handful of eligible slots. If Malachi Kirby had been recognized instead of, say, Cuba Gooding, Jr. or John Travolta, you’d have had no argument from me.)

I thought The People v. O.J. good enough that I downloaded it from iTunes, for posterity.

And yet. . . . 

Just this past week, with echoes of race-based police shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Dallas, Texas still vivid, I finally found the time to binge-watch O.J.: Made in America, filmmaker Ezra Edelman’s absorbing, five-part, 10-hour documentary for ESPN’s 30 for 30 film showcase, on my DVR.

O.J.: Made in America made its debut earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, followed by screenings at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and Toronto’s Hot Docs in April.

It didn’t make its official TV premiere on ESPN, though, until last month, and so was ineligible for this year’s Emmys. (It will be eligible next year, assuming Emmy voters’ memories can think back that far.)

I was doubtful about O.J.: Made in America at first. Having seen and admired The People v. O.J., I believed I had heard everything that needed to be said about O.J.

Simpson. How much more was left?

Plenty, as it turns out.

Watching O.J.: Made in America today — all 10 hours, over two consecutive days, with the real-world news events of the past several days and weeks still fresh in the mind — watching O.J.: Made in America is a truly harrowing experience.

For all that fictional, dramatized recreations can do — and The People v. O.J. did plenty — there’s nothing like the actual reality of seeing things happen as they happened to shake one’s beliefs and preconceptions.

Filmmaker Edelman’s great achievement in O.J.: Made in America was to place the Simpson trial in the social context of its time, by peeling back the layers — an F. Lee Bailey line in the documentary, used to describe how a good defense attorney works to establish reasonable doubt in a complex murder trial — to show how racial tensions, mutual mistrust and a consistent pattern of police behavior in black neighborhoods created a volatile backdrop for a trial-by-jury.

The very first scene in The People v. O.J. Simpson was of the fateful night in June 1994, when Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were murdered outside her home on Bundy Drive in the upscale, predominantly white Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood.

O.J.: Made in America begins much earlier, toggling back-and-forth between two wildly differing and seemingly disconnected narratives.

The first narrative is of O.J. Simpson’s emergence as a rising star and college football hero at USC, and how America fell in love with him as he gained superstardom with the Buffalo Bills and then the San Francisco 49ers.

In those early hours, O.J.: Made in America follows Simpson as he forges a high-profile, post-NFL career as TV analyst for The NFL on NBC and Monday Night Football — a consistent ratings chart-topper —followed by a burgeoning career as a celebrity actor in films like Capricorn One, The Towering Inferno and The Naked Gun series.

The second, seemingly unrelated narrative is a blow-by-blow account of a litany of violent police confrontations involving black communities in Los Angeles. O.J.: Made in America is seamless in the way it weaves the two divergent narratives together, long before the night outside the Bundy house when The People v. O.J. begins its story.

Had The People v. O.J. started its story earlier, of course — say, the night Nicole Brown Simpson made a desperate 911 call for help from spousal abuse and, incredibly, the attending LAPD officer was one Mark Fuhrman — an already 10-hour miniseries could have ballooned to 20 hours or more.

Coincidentally or not, the running times of The People v. O.J. and O.J.: Made in America are virtually identical: 499 minutes for People vs. 464 minutes for Made in America. The latter isn’t as long because, despite its wider time frame, as a documentary it has no way of going behind-the-scenes to show the personal lives of protagonists and antagonists alike. It was those small, personal details that gave The People v. O.J. much of its resonance.

And yet O.J.: Made in America is the more interesting of the two — to me, anyway — because it places the Simpson trial in the context of societal fissures and unrest that continue to this day.

It has a lot to say, too, about the media and how TV, everything from cameras-in-the-courtroom to establishing CNN’s place as the go-destination for live, breaking news (in part because it was the only widely available 24-hour cable-news channel at the time) has changed the way viewers see the world today.

We haven’t heard the end yet of The People v. O.J. Simpson. It is the prohibitive favorite to win the limited-series Emmy when the awards are handed out Sept. 18, despite stiff competition from the truly fine Fargo, not to mention other, worthy contenders like Roots, American Crime and The Night Manager.

Vance and Paulson are both nominated for next month’s Television Critics Association Awards for individual achievement in drama; The People v. O.J. is one of seven nominees for the group’s Program of the Year award, and has been nominated for drama series, as well.

It’s not hard to imagine that it might win in all categories. And the inevitable parade of awards won’t stop there.

As good as The People v. O.J. is, though — and it’s very good indeed — O.J.: Made in America is the one I’ll look back on as being the real truth-teller. It’s certainly the one I’ll remember the longest.

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