Monday, April 3, 2017

O.J. Made in America - (Core Response #4)

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.”


  1. I just started watching OJ: Made in America a couple days ago! I've only seen a couple episodes, so I have yet to experience its length, but I wonder how duration fits into the conversation. One key distinction between film and TV seems to be duration, though it's not a very reliable or meaningful one. It's interesting that you mention The Wire in relation to ESPN's OJ, because both use melodrama to think about race in America. Despite being scripted, The Wire has been commended for its apparent proximity to social reality and its ability to represent the complexities of institutional oppression, which people like Linda Williams have attributed to its serial format and melodramatic mode. It's a provocative argument, as many would place melodrama's excess in opposition to realism's conventional austerity. But is there something about (especially televisual) melodrama that does justice to reality?

  2. I suppose it's also interesting to think about the melodrama of the OJ story considering that American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson aired in the same year. (I've definitely been in a couple conversations where one person thought that the FX show was a documentary, or assumed the two were one and the same.) I haven't seen Made in America (on my list!), but I did watch People vs. OJ, and my understanding is that Made in America follows more of OJ's rise to stardom and situation within the public sphere (especially in regards to race relations) than the actual murders? Certainly, it raises the question for me: why two different shows around the same person in the same year? What cultural moment(s) drove that executive decision? I'm sure Black Lives Matter and general, nationwide regressions in racial tolerance played a role, but I'm sure there's more to the picture. Moreover, I'd be curious to examine how the depiction of the OJ story was molded by not only by the two different genres, but also the different networks, audience demographics, etc. What made the shows successful in the eyes of their respective viewers, and what were the shows trying to achieve? (Beyond an FX takeover by Ryan Murphy.) Not having seen Made in America, I don't really have answers to these questions...but just something I was thinking about.

  3. Jumping off Sasha's point about duration as a key (albeit apparently unreliable) difference between film and TV: I was just thinking how duration should also be thought of as relevant not only as in duration of the film/show, but the duration of its shooting (which I do mean to differentiate here from the duration of "making" it, which would include post-production). It seems trivial that episodic TV shows and series might be in the making, continuously or with breaks between seasons, for years; a little less trivial and normal would be that the making of documentaries (TV, film, Netflix or else..) may take years or decades even when not relying on archival footage of various sources but only on "original"material by the same authors with the same intent in mind (O.J. Made in America made me think of Netflix's Making a Murderer that was filmed for over a decade); however, as for fiction film (or in fact, any one single "unit" of fictional TV), there is a norm or expectation that shooting should not take more than a couple of months--that is why the temporal dimensions of Boyhood (came out in 2014) are so uncanny and been perceived by many as disturbing/unsettling/alien to the medium of (fiction) film itself.