Until last week, Making a Murderer was the best documentary I had ever seen. Laura Ricciardi and Moria Demos, the co-directors of Making a Murderer, made all the right decisions in order for their documentary to take over the internet for a few weeks. They spent over 10 years creating a 10-hour documentary, which they released on Netflix at the height of everyone’s addiction to true crime stories. They also released it a week before Christmas, so everyone could binge this instead of having forced conversations with that aunt that keeps asking why you’re still single.
These were all factors into why I was completely enamored with Making a Murderer, but it was mostly because it was absolutely riveting. Making a Murderer tells the story of Steven Avery, a man who grew up in rural Wisconsin and was falsely accused of rape in 1985. He was released from prison in 2003, and it seemed like he was going to be able to get his life back in order. Then, two years later, he was charged with murder.
The 10 episode epic explores the personal life of Avery, as the filmmakers spent years with him and his family. It revolves around him and the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, as they were suspected of framing Avery of murder.
After watching Making a Murderer in the span of three days, I was obsessed. I read multiple articles about it and I visited multiple message boards to read what everyone else was saying about it. If there was anything on the internet about it, I wanted to read, listen or interact with it (except for sign the petition sent to President Obama to get Avery pardoned, because he has no authority to do so).
I wasn’t sure if there would ever be a show that I would want to interact with more, let alone a documentary. Then, back in January, I heard that ESPN’s 30 for 30 series would be doing a five-part documentary about OJ Simpson. I was initially intrigued due to my love for the 30 for 30 series, but my interest peaked when I started to hear people on Twitter say it was the best thing that ESPN has ever done.
I bought into the hype immediately and eagerly waited until this past week when it debuted. After watching part one, I was hooked. Now that I have finished all seven and a half hours of it, I’m in awe. Ezra Edelman, the director of OJ: Made in America, does a perfect job of telling the story of one of the most complicated American celebrities living in such a polarizing city during a time of mass racial turmoil.
For me, much of this documentary is a history lesson. I was born in 1995, so I was not alive when the murder took place, nor do I have any recollection of “the trial of the century.” I already knew about OJ being a Hall of Fame running back, and I knew about the white bronco chase (thanks to June 17th, 1994, another brilliant 30 for 30 directed by Brett Morgen). I intentionally avoided watching FX’s The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story because I wanted to know less about the trial coming into this documentary, and because I didn’t want to see David Schwimmer depict Robert Kardashian. Even if you vividly remember the history of OJ, I guarantee there is stuff in this documentary that you did not know. Along with that, Edelman uses extremely personal footage that has never been seen by the public before. Each part is full of hauntingly surreal footage that better explains the complexity of OJ.
At the surface, it may seem unfair to compare OJ: Made in America to Making a Murderer because the story of OJ Simpson is one of the most interesting stories in American history. But just like apples and oranges are both fruits, O.J.: Made in America and Making a Murderer are both documentaries, so it is completely fair.
OJ: Made in America surpassed my infatuation for Making a Murderer because it covers over 50 years of history rather than just focusing on OJ Simpson and his murder trial. It doesn’t just show OJ the murderer, it shows OJ the football legend, the sub-par broadcaster, the charismatic actor, the abusive husband and the overall American icon. It also shows the deep-rooted racism that exists within the LAPD. It acknowledges that police brutality against African-Americans didn’t start in 1992 with Rodney King and the riots that followed. It goes much deeper into why those riots happened, like the Watts riots in 1965, the unnecessarily forceful police raids on 39th and Dalton and the killings of Eula Love and Latasha Harlins.
We are given all this background information in the first two parts, over three hours of the documentary, before the murders are even mentioned. This all helps to better explain the trial, and how it became much more than just the trial of OJ Simpson. It turned into the trial of Mark Fuhrman, the LAPD, and the racial tension that is ever-present in America. Edelman does a wonderful job of bringing the focus back onto Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, the two people OJ murdered. He tells each of their stories and reminds the audience just how brutally they were murdered by showing gruesome photos of the crime scene. Most documentaries or books that have covered the trial up to this point have focused on the media circus that surrounded the trial, as did this documentary, but Edelman makes sure to remind the audience of why OJ was on trial in the first place.
The most glaring difference between OJ: Made in America and Making a Murderer is that Edelman tells all sides of the story, while Ricciardi and Demos focus only on trying to convince you that Steven Avery was framed (which they did an excellent job of doing so). In Making a Murderer we primarily get interviews with Avery’s family members and Avery’s defense lawyers. It is telling the story of how Avery was put in this position, and why he is innocent. They don’t really give the prosecution or the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department a chance to defend themselves. Clips from the trial are shown, but they don’t get any time to talk to the audience directly.
In OJ: Made in America, Edelman interviews just about everyone who was involved with OJ. In regards to the trial, he talks with Marcia Clark and Bill Hodgman from the prosecution team, F. Lee Baily and Carl Douglas from the defense team, two jurors, Mark Fuhrman and several others who testified in court. When talking about the Rodney King riots, he interviews multiple civil rights activists, African-American residents of Los Angeles and members of the LAPD. And when talking about OJ, we don’t just hear how terrible he is, we hear stories from childhood friends and co-workers explaining the charm of OJ.
There are times where it is not hard to feel sympathetic for OJ, like when he was thrown into the spotlight in the late 60s as a 20-year-old black athlete in a dominantly white society. He was expected to fight for the rights of his fellow black athletes, much like Jim Brown and Mohamed Ali were, although that was something he never wanted to involve himself with. Most of the time though, you feel disgust and disdain toward OJ, like when he was at a wedding, sitting at an all-black table, and he overheard a white woman say “look at OJ sitting with all those n*****s.” Instead of being offended, he was honored that the woman acknowledged his presence and did not associate him with the other black people at the table.
OJ: Made in America made me feel depressed, enraged, intrigued, satisfied and craving more all at the same time. It is a trial of human emotion that can range from laughing when Al Cowlings, the man driving the white bronco, yells at a cop saying “you know who I am goddammit!” after the cop asks who’s on the phone, to crying when Fred Goldman talks about the restaurant his son Ron was planning to open before he was murdered.
While we were all pissed off at the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department over the holiday break, Making a Murderer got nowhere near making me feel the wide range of emotions that were evoked out of me while I watched OJ: Made in America. The story does not try to convince you of OJ’s guilt or innocence; it does not care where you stand. It is not trying to persecute OJ, nor is it trying to redeem OJ.
Journalist Celia Farber perfectly describes the phenomenon of OJ: Made in America with this explanation: “We talk about OJ as though the story is OJ. The story is OJ and us.” Edelman gives us a front row seat to seven and a half hours of that story, and he does it in a way that transcends all documentaries before it, including Making a Murderer.