It was a story more than 20 years in the making that took nearly two years to make.
It was seen at both the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals, then spent a week in public theaters in Los Angeles and New York, where anyone with 8 ¼ hours and $12 to spare could consume it in its entirety.
It has been reviewed and discussed by movie critics, TV critics, cultural critics and sportswriters, and it has competed for attention with another series on another network in another format covering some of the same ground.
Now, at last, “O.J.: Made in America” is ready for delivery to by far its broadest audience yet, a five-part epic premiering on ABC on June 11 before moving to ESPN June 14, 15, 17 and 18. (In other words, nights the NBA Finals are not played.)
Director Ezra Edelman does not know what to expect, but he knows that this is a pivotal moment in the long journey of his project, the most ambitious to date in ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary franchise.
“Trying to anticipate people’s responses beyond what I have already gotten is pretty futile,” he said. “Everyone brings their own —— to this story. So I don’t expect everyone to just watch this and be like: ‘That was great!’
“I’m sure it’s going to affect different people in different ways. But that’s also the point of the movie. I am looking forward to the quiet. I’m looking forward to June 18, after everyone has seen it.”
Edelman does not expect all the issues he raises to be resolved any more so than they were in 1994 and ’95, in the aftermath of O.J. Simpson being tried and acquitted for murdering Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.
But he does hope that by tying the Simpson case to the arc of race relations in 20th Century Los Angeles — in particular the relationship between African-Americans and police there — what went down then can be better understood now.
“There was a goal that if people could arrive at some level of empathy for those who didn’t think like they did during the trial, I think we’ve done our job,” Edelman said.
That includes white people who not only were shocked that Simpson was acquitted, but also by the celebration of that ruling among many black Americans.
“With some distance and being able to emotionally go on this journey, I hope that people have a greater empathy for African-Americans who responded the way they responded,” Edelman said, “and also, by the way, to understand that everyone doesn’t think the same way and that everyone didn’t respond the same way.”
The historical context — especially but not limited to the videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the acquittal of the policemen involved in 1992 — takes time. Hence the 10-hour running time (including commercials).
But there is even more to the story than that. Edelman begins by putting Simpson’s football fame and pristine image into context, and ends with a detailed look at the tangled episode that landed him back in jail, where he remains.
Regarding the former, he said, “You can’t possibly understand the significance of this story and shock in 1994 if you don’t have an appreciation for how impactful of a cultural figure O.J. was . . . You have to emotionally connect with him as a character. You need to be seduced by him all over again.”
Regarding the latter, he said, “Certainly there’s a farcical element to the end of the story that is engaging in itself for entertainment value. And I do think, not surprisingly, a lot of people, myself included, just sort of tuned out after a certain point. We went through this huge ordeal and then, ‘I don’t care anymore about what happened to this guy.’ ”
Still, inevitably, the film gives full attention to the 1995 Trial of the Century that followed the murders, featuring interviews with most of the key figures, one highlight being an oddly civil sitdown with controversial detective Mark Fuhrman.
Edelman, 41, called it the most challenging of the 72 interviews he conducted for the film.
“He’s not there to be put on trial,” the director said. “I’m there to talk to him about his reflections on this point in time, the events themselves and the work he did and his opinions about it and how he personally was [characterized].
“My job is to try to figure out what darkness lies underneath. It was very challenging, and this is where having the basic desire to empathize and be fair to everybody really came into play.”
Interviews with two jurors also are telling. One of the two, Carrie Bess, is bluntly candid in discussing the impact the King case had on her mindset.
“I don’t know if it was right, but it was true to her at that point in time and who she was, what her experiences were growing up in L.A. or what her experiences were being sequestered for nine months,” Edelman said. “That’s where she was coming from.”
Fuhrman and Bess were two of many examples of what Edelman said surprised him most about the project: How honest subjects were with him.
“Ultimately I feel a great debt to everyone,” he said.
ESPN plans to include strong warnings before and during the episode in which rarely seen crime-scene photos will be shown, images among the most graphic ever seen on television. Edelman said it was important to include them.
“I would say that it’s important to engage with the brutality of the crime,” he said. “Even in the film, with the way it went, you get lost in the circus that is the trial and the characters and the tactics of the defense. But you’re like, yeah, but what’s at the heart of it?
“Two people got brutally murdered and the man who’s at the center of whether he did or didn’t do it is sitting there the whole time signing autographs in jail and playing to the cameras. I think you have to engage with the utmost, starkest brutality of the murders because I think it informs in the end what this was all about.”
In a perfect world, Edelman would have loved for everyone to watch the film in one sitting on a big screen in a dark theater — “the purest form” — but that is not the real world, and he has accepted the pros and cons of an ad-supported series format.
“It’s a lot of information and a lot of characters,” he said. “So maybe it’s better to take it in installments so your brain can absorb it better than having it all wash over you at one time . . . I just want people to watch it.”
Edelman initially was less than pleased when he learned FX was planning a scripted series focused primarily on the trial, “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which ran 10 episodes starting in February and became a critical and ratings hit.
He feared viewers and journalists would not have an appetite for watching and writing about so much O.J. in so short a time, and that the FX series would beat him to it as a storytelling refresher course for viewers.
But recently he has become more sanguine about all that.
“In the end,” he said, “based on how much people are into it, there’s no doubt [the FX series] engaged an audience in a different way and prepped people to be interested in talking to us about our film and hopefully watching it. I feel like I have had to eat my words.”
Such has been the pull of the O.J. case, well into a new millennium.
Said Edelman, “I definitely underestimated our culture’s fascination with the topic.”