Part of ESPN’s ongoing series of sports documentaries called 30 for 30, O.J. Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman, first aired on the channel in May 2016. Detailing O.J. Simpson’s murder trial—as well as the cultural atmosphere that led to and resulted from it—the series aired as 5 episodes and lasted 7.5 hours in total. Like Terry Gross’s inclusion of The Wire in her top ten list of films in Kackman’s article, this documentary also appeared on numerous annual top ten films in 2016, and was even ranked 5th overall in Indiewire’s annual critics poll. Perhaps most definitively, Made in America also won the Academy Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature, over nominees with arguably more traditional “documentary film”-style releases, formats, and lengths.
As Kackman notes regarding The Wire’s top ten status, “the ultimate mark of distinction for the show was to detach it fully from its medium of origin, and place it in its “true” aesthetic context – that of cinema.” Similarly, Made in America’s awards in film categories seem to be more indicative of its positive critical reception than a commentary on its definitive form as EITHER singularly film OR singularly television. Unlike The Wire, Made in America did meet the semantic standards for a “documentary feature film” as specified by the Academy—it was nonfiction, had a (brief) qualifying theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles before its TV premiere, and was over 40 minutes long. While this definition of “documentary” might lack the nuance and creativity of a documentary theorist, its generalness also affords the widest possible berth of potential nominees. At the same time, if the producers had decided to premiere the series on television first, then it certainly would have qualified for an Emmy award instead. In this case, the difference between “film” or “television” depends simply on where the media first appeared—an increasingly blurry distinction in an age of Netflix and iTunes—and in large part due to the producers’ award season strategies.
As Christine Gledhill wrote, melodrama “draws into a public arena desires, fears, values and identities which lie beneath the surface of the publicly acknowledged world” (quoted in Kackman). The intention of Made in America—and part of why it needed to be more than the standard two hours—was in fact to fully depict the melodrama of the cultural moment, rather than simply the dry facts. As director Edelman described, he needed the bigger “canvas to tell a deeper story about race in America, about the city of Los Angeles, the relationship between the black community and the police, and who O. J. was and his rise to celebrity.”