Tomorrow, Saturday, June 11, ABC will debut O.J.: Made in America, ESPN and director Ezra Edelman’s sprawling documentary exploring a case that’s been investigated more times than Gigi Hadid’s Instagram feed. Edelman, however, wants you to know this film isn’t about the 1994 murders or the trial that followed one year later. It’s about race in 20th Century America—about a black population who chased their dreams to Los Angeles only to face widespread contempt and violence at the hands of the local police department. Instead of focusing on a year in time, Edelman explores 30 years of a marginalized minority population. Basically, he explains why O.J. mattered so damn much.
We caught up with Edelman before the film’s January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where the 41-year-old documentarian (Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, the Emmy Award-winning Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush) knocked back coffee and a scone during our hour long interview. “It’s 7.5 hours long!“ he explained. "Gotta eat first.” He shared dirt on everything from the project’s inception to the number-one reason his film can’t be compared to the recent FX miniseries American Crime Story.
Where did the idea for this project originate?
I would love to take credit for the idea, but it was the brainchild of Connor Schell, president of ESPN films and executive producer of the film. He’d been thinking about O.J. as a subject he’d been interested in for years, so he brought it to me as something to explore. But to ESPN’s credit, their team said from the beginning, “This is something big. So many people are talking about O.J. right now that we need to do our version right.” To put it in context, our documentary was originally conceived to be five hours long; we ended up with seven.
Why do you think ESPN considered you the right man for the job?
I’ve always worked on projects that deal with race in America, particularly in the 20th Century. That’s how I made a name for myself. So even though ESPN had their own ideas for the film, they came to me and said, “Do whatever you see fit. Make the film you want to make.” I’ll be honest: They were far more interested in O.J. as the birth of the modern celebrity. I, on the other hand, saw the project as an opportunity to explore racial tensions in Los Angeles. But this story had more than enough meat for everyone.
Why revisit the case more than two decades later? Is there really anything to add?
Initially, I was reluctant. Who needs to see more about the most picked-over case in American history? But then I started doing my research, and I realized that most of the books and films that have been done about O.J. are so limited. I don’t mean to be critical, but they start with a murder on June 12, 1994 and end with a trial on October 3, 1995. There’s maybe the slightest hint at what happened before—a tiny nod to something like Rodney King—but that’s pretty much it. OK, that’s nice, but I’m not interested in being another person who just regurgitates the details of the case. It was so unlikely that I could even find something new about it anyway, what with all the information that’s out there. So in order to take on the project I had to approach it from a different angle completely.
On that topic, what did attract you to the story?
I was interested in it for more so many reasons. Yes, O.J. is a story about race in America, but it’s also a story about race in Los Angeles—a story that goes back decades. Everything that explains what went into that trial, why people were invested in it, why people chose sides, why people reacted the way that they did to the verdict, why people were so unwilling to believe someone like O.J. could have possibly done something like this… that didn’t start in 1994. That started in 1965. That started with a black migration to Los Angeles and their immediate tensions with the police department. That started with the Watts Riots, which is really the story of what was happening consistently during the 30 years O.J. was becoming this pioneering black superstar celebrity. His story is just so at odds with the story of any other black person in Los Angeles at the time. I used this film to intertwine all that fabric into a single story.
So would you say the film is primarily about race?
If you think about it, O.J. was this incredible vessel for me. He’s a black man in America who got everything he ever wanted. All he wanted was to be famous, and he got that in spades. So the juxtaposition of those two trajectories—O.J.’s and that of the black community in Los Angeles—is really what the film’s about. We don’t avoid the murder; we talk about it. I still think it’s absolutely worth revisiting 20 years later for historical context. But my interest was in O.J. as this revolutionary black figure and how that fit into a broader American issue.
There’s a trend right now where journalists try to re-investigate, and then solve, crimes. Is that something you wanted to achieve with this project? Some sort of verdict?
I can’t speak for others, but my investigation, if you want to call it that, wasn’t an attempt to “solve” the crime. It was an attempt to explain why we all became so absorbed in this moment of American history—why there was a fascination that divided people in such a dramatic way. People who haven’t thought deeply about the interconnectedness of all these events—of O.J, Rodney King and the Watts Riots—need to understand. And all of that can be explained through this man and this city and this case. So it’s a lot more than a murder or trial.
How old were you when the murders took place?
I remember it vividly: I was 19 and had just finished my sophomore year at Yale. One night, I was home in DC and invited friends over to my parents’ house on a Friday night to watch the Knicks/Rocket game—game five of the NBA finals. And then… wait… O.J. is on the freeway? But the thing was I actually wanted to watch the basketball game, so, I was shuttling from the basement back upstairs to watch them both. As a young black kid growing up in America, I, too, saw O.J. as an icon. There weren’t many people like that for us at the time. There was certainly a part of me that wanted him to be acquitted, and I was highly interested in the case. But not enough to miss the NBA finals.
Did O.J. participate in the making of the film?
I, of course, wanted O.J. to participate. I wrote him a letter in jail and tried numerous other channels of getting in touch. But it wasn’t like we didn’t have a film if he wasn’t in it. If O.J wants to call me up and invite me to prison, then we’ll head out there and do a 10-hour documentary on that. It may also be worth noting: Kris Jenner turned us down, too, although very politely.
So who is profiled?
We interviewed 72 people, 66 of whom are in the film—most of whom have been directly in contact with O.J. throughout his life. People he grew up with, people he played football with, people who were involved with the trial, friends of his in L.A. We have all these different perspectives of people who were around O.J. at these different moments in time. It’s really an amazing composite of an incredibly complex man at an incredibly complex time.
So, do you think he did it?
What I think isn’t important. But if you watch the film, you’ll come to your own conclusion.
O.J.: Made in America debuts on ABC June 11 before moving to ESPN for the duration of its run.