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'O.J. Simpson: Made In America' Dives Deep Into Life Of Fallen Football Hero


What do you remember about O.J. Simpson before he went on trial for murder? Starting this weekend, ESPN films offers a very deep dive into life of the fallen football hero with a new five-part documentary called "O.J.: Made In America." Our co-host Kelly McEvers watched it all. And just a reminder - some of the details of the Simpson case are graphic.


First, let's get this out of the way - O.J. Simpson was a really amazing football player.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Sixty-four thrilling, captivating collegiate football yards...

MCEVERS: In the very first hour of this seven and a half hour documentary, director Ezra Edelman shows us just how amazing he was and how motivated O.J. was to make something of himself.


O J SIMPSON: I need - I need that recognition. I think that what is driving O.J. Simpson is that need to be known, that need to be liked, that need to be saying, hey, that's O.J. Simpson. When I walk down the street, I want people to know me.

MCEVERS: Ezra Edelman didn't set out to make a documentary this long, but he told me that once he got started, he realized there was so much history he needed to put in - not just about football and celebrity, but also about race, particularly in Los Angeles.

EZRA EDELMAN: If anyone goes and sort of watches things that have been done about O.J. or reads books, the thing that's left out is the context. Oftentimes, it's kind of a regurgitation of the trial, and you get the line of, oh, he was a former football star.


EDELMAN: And, oh, you maybe get a shot of Rodney King in 1991 being assaulted by the four officers and the LAPD. The LA riots in '92 were - a lot of people focused on that when the O.J. trial came around. That was an explosion, though, that wasn't just the result of what had happened in 1991, both with the Rodney King verdict and with Latasha Harlins' verdict.

MCEVERS: Just real quick - she was the one who was shot in the convenience store.

EDELMAN: She was a 13-year-old black girl who was shot by a Korean shop owner, like, sort of at point-blank range.

MCEVERS: On video.

EDELMAN: On video. And then that - said Korean shop owner did not receive any jail time. What you realize when you talk to people is that it wasn't just those two incidents. This is something that was consistently happening. And so when you know that the defense preyed upon this history in making the case for O.J., I felt that you really need to emotionally go on this journey so you could, as a viewer, start to empathize with all those black people who invested so thoroughly in this trial and invested in O.J. as a character and responded the way they did to the verdict. It was about so much more than about O.J. They weren't sort of that invested in who O.J. was personally. They were invested in these years of injustice suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system and, you know, at the hands of the LAPD. That's what this was about.

MCEVERS: Let me get to the trail - of course, the trial of the century. And one of the things that struck me - I mean, what makes this documentary so different from the recent FX miniseries "The People V. O.J. Simpson" are the people you interview. I mean, you talk to a lot of the real people who were involved in this. You've got Marcia Clark, who was the lead prosecutor, and Ron Shipp. He was a cop, and he had been a good friend of O.J.'s and Nicole Brown Simpson. At first, he refused to testify in the trial. And then one day, he actually saw photos of the crime scene, saw up close, you know, how Nicole Brown Simpson's throat had been cut, I mean, all the way back to the vertebrae. And it's at that point that he says he changed his mind about O.J. Let's hear just a little clip of him.


RON SHIPP: I want to kill him. I mean, all I thought about was somebody's daughter, sister, whatever, just never coming home. Well, when I saw Nicole's pictures - that was the same thing. I felt like that with O.J. Only an animal would do something like this to the mother of your kids.

EDELMAN: He was likening seeing those photos and that feeling he had for O.J. with the first time he had seen a murder as a member of the LAPD. And he remembers sitting across from - next to the guy, saying, I wanted to kill him. And that's how he felt about O.J. when he finally saw those pictures of Nicole, someone that he was friends with and laughed with. The thing about Ron Shipp - he's very much the heart of this story and explains so much about the power that O.J. had in our culture.

In the film, we discussed the UCLA-USC game - the famous game in 1967 that really put O.J. on the national stage, where he ran for this incredibly dramatic 64-yard touchdown. Well, Ron Shipp was a 15-year-old kid in Southern California who happened to have gone to the Coliseum for the first time, wanting to see O.J. play - snuck into the game. And then lo and behold, a year later, he gets invited to a banquet because he's a football star where O.J.'s the keynote speaker. And O.J. name-checks him because O.J. knew his older brother.

And this journey you go on with him to see his childhood hero - to see a guy who then, once he becomes a cop, befriends O.J. and spends a lot of time with him and really gains his trust. I think that just shows you sort of both O.J.'s magnetism and how people like Ron Shipp could be sucked into his vortex and the just tremendous shock that comes with realizing this person wasn't who they thought they were.

MCEVERS: Yeah. Another major theme - there's so many themes - one is this idea of payback. You know, you hear actual jurors in the O.J. trial tell you his not-guilty verdict was payback for Rodney King. And then later when O.J. gets a really stiff sentence for armed robbery in Las Vegas - he's still in prison for that one - you hear one of O.J.'s lawyers - one of his friends - say that that was payback for the not-guilty verdict in the murder trial.

EDELMAN: It's payback for the payback.

MCEVERS: Right. I mean, there's this sense that it is just all so arbitrary.

EDELMAN: Well, I would say that this film is not a wonderful commentary on our justice system. I mean, look if you have a jury member who can look someone straight in the face and say, yes, this was payback for Rodney King, obviously, that is not the way that justice should be done in America. Now, having said that, we have two women in the jury - two black women, and the other woman didn't think that way. She absorbed the evidence. She listened to the case that the prosecution put on. And she felt that they did not reach their burden, that they did not prove O.J. guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.


EDELMAN: And that is why she voted to acquit O.J. And I think it was very important to have those two different voices because I think what has happened with this story is that we just sort of decide to reduce this to - it was this, or it was that. Oh, there were eight black women on the jury. They all thought this way. This was all payback. No, it wasn't. It was for this one particular person. It wasn't in for Yolanda Crawford. But the fact that by the time we get to the robbery case in 2007 in Las Vegas and O.J. is sentenced to 33 years in prison for, in essence, you know, like, a stupid heist - like, sort of some bad "Ocean's 11" rip-off. Thirty three years for that? I don't think so. You know, people say it was karmic justice. Well, that's fine, but that's not the way our justice system should work.

MCEVERS: Right. That's not how it's run.

EDELMAN: We don't deal in karma.


EDELMAN: We deal in evidence and facts.

MCEVERS: Now that you have done such a deep dive, what do you think about O.J. Simpson?

EDELMAN: I don't think OJ is the greatest dude in the world, and that's about all that really needs to be said.

MCEVERS: Do you think he's going to watch it?

EDELMAN: Oh, man. I don't know. I've heard a rumor that he has cable television in his cell, so I don't know. It could go both ways, and I certainly cannot anticipate his response.

MCEVERS: That's Ezra Edelman. He's the director of "O.J.: Made In America." Thank you so much.

EDELMAN: Thank you, Kelly. I appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: The first part of the new documentary "O.J.: Made In America" premieres this weekend on ABC. The rest of it will air later on ESPN. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.