O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson on their wedding day, 1985 (ESPN Films)

The bloody glove, the references to the Kardashians, celebrity-obsessed Lance Ito: the O.J. Simpson trial was a case ripe for pop culture parody. It would be easy to assume that Ezra Edelman’s seven hours and a half documentary is yet another breezy look at a story we all know. The filmmaker instead takes a thorough look at O.J. Simpson the man rather than O.J. Simpson the defendant, and what emerges isn’t an over-the-top chronicle of the so-called trial of the century but the trajectory of a seminal American figure. Edelman takes an unflinching look at Simpson (presenting him as almost a modern-day tragic Greek hero) and what his story means to America. His film raises questions about race and the culture of fame yet refuses to provide easy answers.

Through archival footage, viewers see how Simpson distinguished himself at the University of Southern California, earning the Heisman Trophy. After USC, Simpson was drafted by the Buffalo Bills and took on the unlikely role of underdog: then-coach John Rauch’s misunderstanding of the athlete’s talents (Rauch wanted Simpson to block and receive rather than run the ball) resulted in many doubting his prowess. With new coach Harvey Johnson, Simpson had the chance to do what he did best: run. The footage of Simpson darting—often sideways—past the opposition is mesmerizing, and even those who aren’t interested in football or sports will be enthralled to see him eventually rush 2,000 yards in a single season.

Along the way, Edelman intersperses Simpson’s story with that of racism in California and America as a whole. The use of visuals is powerful, emphasizing how, in contrast to more politically conscious athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Simpson avoided becoming embroiled in discussions of civil rights protests or demonstrations. Footage of Tommie Smith and John Carlos delivering the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics are a sharp contrast with interviews of an agreeable Simpson demurring to take the conversation in a political direction.

Edelman presents brutal footage of the mistreatment black residents of Los Angeles received at the hands of the white Los Angeles Police Department, and then jumps back to the athlete’s story, featuring clips from the famous Hertz ads that depicted a smiling Simpson running through an airport, cheered on by adoring bystanders. A common refrain is Simpson’s statement, “I’m not black; I’m O.J.!”, and the film slowly weaves an image of a celebrity utterly embraced by white culture and a man seemingly able to transcend race—or was he? It’s a question that runs through the documentary, and one that viewers will find themselves grappling with.

Commentary from childhood friends—not always flattering—form a portrait of Simpson as a man often willing to betray close friends (Simpson began seeing his future wife Marguerite while she was still dating his close friend A.C. Cowlings), yet he was able to retain a golden boy image through his unfailing charisma. While his faults are on full display—his womanizing; his callousness to Marguerite and their children; his abuse of his second wife, Nicole Brown Simpson—his charm and magnetism come through, too—as well as his thirst for celebrity.

Providing context for the racial tension in Los Angeles—and explaining why many would eventually root for Simpson to be acquitted of murder charges—the film highlights three incidents that exemplify the racist attitudes of the LAPD: the 1988 raid of two apartments at Dalton and 39th, which resulted in only a few ounces of drugs discovered and left the inhabitants homeless; the well-known beating of Rodney King in 1991; and, 13 weeks after King’s assault, the killing of 13-year-old Latasha Harlins, shot by a Korean store owner who was convicted of manslaughter but sentenced to no prison time.

When it comes to Simpson’s criminal trial for the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, the film tends to sidestep the seamier and sleazier elements. It avoids giving time to splashier characters such as Faye Resnick and Kato Kaelin and treats seemingly ridiculous aspects with gravitas. For instance, Cochran’s decision to replace photographs of white friends in Simpson’s house in Brentwood with images of Simpson’s black family members and a Norman Rockwell silkscreen of Ruby Bridges is presented as a shrewd maneuver aimed at reinforcing Simpson’s black roots to the predominantly African American jury.

While the story may seem over once Simpson is acquitted in 1995 of the murders, the film continues on: many of his former friends wanted little to do with him, and Simpson still chased fame at any cost. Firmly planted on a downward spiral, Simpson found himself among a much seamier crowd, which eventually led to his conviction for armed robbery for attempting to reclaim sports memorabilia, in Las Vegas in 2008. Viewers may not pity him, exactly, but having seen the man’s rise to fame and his obvious talent, they’ll certainly feel the shock of witnessing an iconic figure come crashing to earth.

The film is balanced, interviewing a wide range of individuals (Marcia Clark, Bill Hodson, and Gil Garcetti, of the prosecution; Carl Douglass, Barry Scheck, and F. Lee Bailey, for the defense; two of the jurors; members of the LAPD, including Mark Fuhrman; civil rights activists and members of the black community), though there’s never any attempt to deny that Simpson was responsible for the deaths of Brown and Goldman.

Fraught, tense, and visually stunning, the film raises provocative questions: Was the depth of the public outcry against Simpson after his acquittal rooted in some degree of racism? Was the decision to sentence him to 33 years in prison for armed robbery unjustified, or was it a means of punishing a black man for evading justice? Can anything—even celebrity and fame—ever truly trump race? With no voice-over narration, the film doesn’t attempt to answer these questions definitively. Instead, it’s up to viewers to ponder for themselves—and most certainly this is a documentary that will keep them musing for a long time to come.

Produced and Directed by Ezra Edelman
Released by ESPN
USA. 464 min. Not rated