Ezra Edelman thinks before he talks. But when he finally opens his mouth, he speaks quickly and deliberately.
The 41-year-old filmmaker is the brain behind ESPN's "O.J.: Made in America," a five-part, 464-minute documentary film about the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson. Edelman, who directed HBO's 2010 "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals," was initially reluctant to take on the project when first approached by ESPN, but once he did, he did so obsessively, interviewing 72 people involved in Simpson's life and the events that surround it. The film, which premieres to the public June 11 on ABC before moving over to ESPN on June 14, is as ambitious in scope as it is highly anticipated, following the life of Simpson from his childhood in San Francisco up through his incarceration in Nevada's Lovelock Correctional Center, where he remains to this day.
Throughout the film, Edelman treats viewers to a nuanced portrait of a complicated man, someone who the public has struggled to understand since he burst onto the national stage at USC in the 1960s. But the film is about much more than just Simpson. Edelman seamlessly winds Simpson's story in with that of Los Angeles'. Together, they create something remarkable: a tale of race, gender, violence and celebrity, each treated with the sensitivity needed to truly understand a complicated man's place inside an even more complicated time and place.
The five-part film was shown in its entirety at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on Saturday, and Edelman sat down for a panel discussion the day after with members of The Undefeated, a soon-to-launch ESPN site focused on race, sports and culture, as well as former ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte. Afterward, he spoke with The Huffington Post at a restaurant nearby about the making of the film and what he learned along the way.
Edelman was thoughtful and meticulous throughout the conversation, displaying the sort of carefulness in person that seems necessary when taking on such a far-reaching project as "Made in America." One thing is for sure: You might not know Ezra Edelman's name now, but you will soon.
Maxwell Strachan: How did you start researching such an ambitious project? What were the first steps in deciding what to do with the film?
I didn't come to this story with no knowledge. So as strange as this sounds, I sort of had a little bit of a framework in my mind at the start -- the themes I wanted to explore. The first step for me always is just reading. And there's no shortage of books about the trial and stuff like that. So it was, like, get all those things, figure out what are all the seminal texts that really need to be absorbed and then move forward from there. Lou Cannon wrote this sort of tomb about the history of the LAPD, the community through the lens of Rodney King going backward -- it’s called "Official Negligence." But my philosophy is get your hands on as much material and read it, absorb it before you even start thinking about who you want to call and talk to. I always want be well-versed in the story, as I imagine anybody would want to be.
Strachan: I grew up in LA, and I was obviously aware of Rodney King and a lot of the abuses going back to the '60s. Were you aware of just how many high-profile instances there were in the years leading up to Rodney King?
I mean, no. Yes, I was aware of Watts and Rodney King. But I didn't know anything about Latasha Harlins. I didn't know anything about Eula Love. I didn't know anything about 39th and Dalton. These are all things I learned during the course of [making the film]. These are things you can read about, but it's not until you engage in conversation with people that you realize these are things that come up as these tentpole moments [in Los Angeles history] that legitimizes them as things that need to be explored.
I was aware of Watts and Rodney King. But I didn't know anything about Latasha Harlins. I didn't know anything about Eula Love. I didn't know anything about 39th and Dalton.
Stephanie Marcus: You said you tried to get O.J. to talk to you. What was the process involved?
Of course I wanted to interview O.J., but I didn't want to interview O.J. as soon as I knew I was doing this. It wasn't like [let's] figure out some action plan to figure out a way to get to O.J. Partly because once you start doing some research and you read and you see, [you] know what O.J. has to say about most of these things. So from the get-go, I bided my time because I wanted to do my own reporting before I even engaged him. And also, we were in enough contact through the course of it where everyone knew about the film in his circle in a way that I know he knew about it.
So I finally wrote him a long email. There is an email system in jail and I don't know if he read it. And that was it. I told him exactly what we were doing and that I wanted to sit down with him. The prison knew we were doing it, I shot at the prison. It was a pretty matter of fact. I didn't lose any sleep over it.
Marcus: And his first wife, Marguerite, she's sort of disappeared?
Yeah, I believe Marguerite lives somewhere in the Bay Area, but nobody on our team ever actually talked to Marguerite. We tried to get people to find her or talk to her on our behalf, but we never had any success with it.
Strachan: Do you feel like you got a sense of what their relationship was from your research?
Nothing more than that was in the film. You're trying to get me in trouble. Honestly, there's a lot I don't know. And honestly, you hear a lot of things, and I have no idea what's verifiable or not about their relationship. It's also hard when you are discussing someone's private life. There's only so much access you can really get and only so much truth you can really get to when it comes to intimacy or what happened between two people. And that's always the difficulty in terms of trying to tell personal stories.
Strachan: What I was thinking about during the [Tribeca Film Festival panel] discussion was how little race relations have improved over the last 20 years. But at least, if not domestic violence improving across the country [outright], the way journalists talk about [domestic violence] has improved. When you were doing research about his history of domestic violence and those interviews he was doing with ESPN, was it just that one interview that was shown by the ESPN personality [Roy Firestone], or did you get a sense that people were really ignoring [O.J.'s history of domestic violence]?
[Writer's note since this was a bad, convoluted question: ESPN's Roy Firestone is shown in the film lobbing softball questions at O.J. about his alleged history of domestic violence that were largely dismissive in nature.]
I didn't watch every single piece of footage, so it's hard to say. I mean [the Firestone interview is] as much representative of maybe a culture of how we might have covered domestic violence, but it [also goes] along with, as Bob [Lipsyte] said in the panel, the jocularity of that world.
So there's a friendliness that came between Roy and him -- and in that way, yeah, frankly in 2016, it's embarrassing. To look at it, you're embarrassed for Roy Firestone, that he could be so enthralled by this guy. And by the way, even if he was taking it easy on him about that incident, still the way he was fawning over him, it's hard not to feel uncomfortable. [But] I don't know if there were other people who similarly talked to him about that the same way.
Strachan: Was it difficult deciding whether to talk about his father's sexuality -- and including that in the film?
No, because wouldn't you want to know about his father's sexuality?
Strachan: Sure, yeah, sure.
I think there's a threshold you have to reach to make sure you feel like it's purposeful to the narrative. The question is, would that be enough of a purposeful thing to put in just to be like, "Oh, by the way, his dad is gay"?
I think that when you think about who O.J. was and all of the themes inherent in the story, that even if I can't flesh it out furthermore than I could with those two [sound] bites from his [childhood] friends [alluding to his father's homosexuality], you still got a sense of the fact that [the friends] found out when they did, which was not until they were 16 or 17 years old, [so] this was something that [O.J.] hid. This is clearly a dynamic that is something that you might traditionally be ashamed of and how that impacts who you are, your sense of masculinity.
To me, all of us, we've been trying to figure out and explain who this guy is and what went on inside his head for so long, and if there's more things that might add something to helping us understand, to me, it's a no-brainer.
I maybe went in with the impression of his as being someone with a diminished intelligence, but it didn't take me that long to realize no, this guy is not [that] at all. In fact, he's brilliant.
Marcus: Did you get a chance to see the FX series "The People v. O.J. Simpson" yet?
Was there an FX series? [Laughs]
Marcus: I think it's kind of like a nice warm up to this, which is sort of epic in comparison.
I have not watched the series. But you can ask me whatever.
Marcus: I was going to ask what you thought of Cuba Gooding Jr.'s performance. Our interpretation of it is that he played O.J. as slow.
I heard that, and in that way, it's interesting. And I probably shouldn't comment on something I haven't seen. I've heard it's good. I'm sure it's good. But it's frustrating that you're doing something and you turn on the television and find out halfway through that someone is doing [something on that same topic, too]. So that's just subjectively kind of shitty if you're me.
Having said that, the one thing I do know is that they don't really -- and tell me if I'm wrong -- [they] really don't go into O.J. that much as a character.
Marcus: No, not at all.
So, that's a clear distinction between the two projects, and then further, I've just been told what you just said about him, which is Gooding sort of presents him as this dour, down guy. And he was far more in control of what was happening during that time [than that]. I think, honestly, one of the most important things in terms of absorbing O.J. was his suicide note. If you read, for instance, Jeffrey Toobin's book [The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson] -- he has the suicide note printed. It's written in chicken scratch -- with misspelled words, grammar is terrible. And so you are left with the impression that this guy is barely, you know, literate. So I maybe went in with the impression of his as being someone with a diminished intelligence, but it didn't take me that long to realize no, this guy is not [that] at all. In fact, he's brilliant. That was something that got dispelled really quickly and if they [FX] bought into that idea of a guy [that] wasn't that smart -- I reject it. If that's how they played it.
Strachan: Certainly for the “millennial” generation, the reason I think the documentary hits hard is because of the first episode. There are so many people that only know O.J. from '94 onward, so your film is really great in really building him up so you could see what his fall is like.
Yeah, that's purposeful. You have to look at him and look at his beauty physically and look at this grace as an athlete, you know, be charmed by him when he makes jokes. Be touched by him when he brings his teammates into an interview with him after he broke the record.
All these things are true to him. Those were genuine. And so, you have to feel as a viewer and -- if you're not old enough to have lived through that -- why he was so beloved. Because [without understanding that] you don't possibly get to a point of understanding why people were so shocked when the murders happened. Now, if you're 30 or under, it's like, "Oh, he's that guy who played football who killed his wife." That's what people knew and it doesn't quite encapsulate the story. And even when you want to compare O.J. to other figures, it's like, he's unique. We're talking about a unique phenomenon in terms of who that guy was on a lot of levels, before it even got to what happened in 1994. And that's what makes this story worthy of two separate 10-hour treatments, you know, within four months of each other on TV.
It gives him an easy out for a lot of his behavior that I don’t think is a result of any traumatic brain injury. - On the idea O.J. Simpson has the brain disease Chronic traumatic encephalopathy
Marcus: Do you think there's any other celebrity today that could reach O.J.'s status in terms of being beloved the way he was?
Today? It's a different world. It's fractured, the way that the media is -- it's so much more specific. I almost look at the way the sort of television medium is, so when it’s like O.J. became famous, there were three networks. So the notion of him being on TV in Hertz commercials, you are talking about a guy who is on TV during "Happy Days" episodes that were getting 30 share. That image of this guy running across an airport was striking, it was so unique. There were so few black faces on television that he occupied a space in terms of the way we communally absorb the world -- both him as an athlete, as well as him as a pitchman -- that doesn't exist in the same way.
We absorbed him universally in a way we don't absorb anyone, I believe, universally now. Even someone you think is ubiquitous, to use like the Kardashians as a bad example, because I don't follow them. But even that, I don't pay attention to the Kardashians, I know people do, but it's a very fractured, segmented portion of the world that does. It's like, "Oh, who watches the E! channel?" I don't know, not me.
Marcus: Just to tap into the Kardashians for a second.
I've already said everything I need to say about the Kardashians.
Marcus: Well, you did. But the doc is largely Kardashian-free, with a few exceptions. Was there a decision to include them as little as possible?
We asked to interview Kris Jenner. She said no.
Marcus: Oh, really? She said no? I’m shocked.
So that's my answer. It's hard to tell a story about someone without any first-person people to tell the story. I'm not upset about it. I'm not interested in the Kardashians as a concept. I would have been interested in including more of them in the story if there was something more relevant for him [Robert Kardashian] to be included. But in some ways, his relationship [with Simpson] was representative of other well-off white businessmen in LA, some of whom went to [Simpson's alma mater] USC. So it's like he's part of a group of people, some of whom I do have. It's not like I could only tell that narrative through the lens of Robert Kardashian.
You can't say, "Black people were all happy that he got acquitted, "Black people thought he was innocent." No. Black people can look at images [of O.J.] in the church afterward and be like, "That's disgusting."
Strachan: One part of the documentary that's really interesting is when O.J. is trying to involve himself in the black community after he's been acquitted -- dressing in African garb and going to Roscoe's and things like that. Do you think the people that you talked to -- that there was a skepticism there? Or do you think people were just happy to have a large celebrity around them?
You would have to ask people. I don't know. I mean, look, I think you get both. I think if anything, what you learn [from "Made in America"] is there is no monolithic way of looking [at things], black or white. Just like you can't say, "Black people were all happy that he got acquitted, "Black people thought he was innocent." No. Black people can look at images [of O.J.] in the church afterward and be like, "That's disgusting." I think it speaks to O.J.'s -- and he says it repeatedly in the film -- he has this pathological need to be loved. And when the love is gone from the space that you carved out for yourself, you got to get your fix somewhere. And this is where he's going to get his fix. What's the most important thing to him? Adulation was the most important thing to him. And so he was going to keep going to the corners of the world that were going to give him that fix.
Strachan: There's no use speculating if he had [the brain disease Chronic traumatic encephalopathy], obviously we'll never know [until he is dead], but do you think his behavior changed in any way [over the course of his life]?
I just don't know. There's so much about O.J.'s story to me that's just unexplainable. You can try to explain it, but can you? I cannot get inside that guy's head. There's no relatable quality that exists in the space where I'm like, "I kinda get it." And I think I can sort of maybe get there intellectually. But so the notion of whether he has CTE, like again, I sort of meant what I said [at the panel] -- I think it gives him an easy out for a lot of his behavior that I don't think is a result of any traumatic brain injury.
And I don't mean to discount the idea that I don't believe he has CTE. I think he could have CTE. But I don't think his behavior was ever so erratic in a way -- you'd be hearing more stories in a way I haven't. That would give me cause [to believe he did with certainty]. I don't think he was violent as a rule, behind closed doors. I think there were sort of incidents that were sort of spurred by either deep psychological things or by alcohol and drugs. I don't reject the theory. This is what I can tell you, I do not think that playing four years of college football -- two at junior college and two at USC, and leading the nation in rushes and leading the NFL in rushes two separate years during your 10 years playing professional football or 12 years playing professional football -- I don't think that was good for him. I don't think it was good for him physically.
I relate to his aspirational quality of wanting to do whatever you do and not be defined by your race or held down.
Strachan: For me, some of the most jarring scenes early on in the film were him being happy that people would describe O.J. [as] "Oh there's O.J. with a bunch of N-words." [Or] when he said "I'm not black. I'm O.J." Do you think it was just him wanting to be accepted for whatever reason? Or do you think there was something about his relationship with blackness that was almost self-hating in the early years?
O.J. very clearly understood a path to where he was trying to get without any models before him, [meaning] black athletes who had enjoyed commercial fame from a white corporate world. Between what he saw and what he was told, he understood that being defined by his blackness was not going to help him get to the place he wanted to get. I think that there might have been a natural inclination for him. And by the way, in a non-judgmental way, I relate to his aspirational quality of wanting to do whatever you do and not be defined by your race or held down. So that's totally normal. But I also think that was naturally who he was. I think he loved people. I also think he clearly saw a path to success that fed the ambitions that he had, and being a black athlete wasn't helping. So I think he knew that. I think he figured the game out and knew how to play it.
Marcus: I think there are a few examples sort of that throughout the film, and then when he’s being arrested, he says, what are all these fans surrounding his house.
"What are all those n***ers doing in Brentwood?"
Marcus: I guess you’re sort of taken aback when you hear it.
To me, I'm sort of loathe to offer commentary [about moments like that]. The one thing I didn't say in the panel is I was thinking about this idea of -- so there's American exceptionalism, and then there is exceptionalism. I think O.J. believed in O.J. exceptionalism. Like period. In a way that has nothing to do with race.
I think he got to a place, and it's just like, "I have done this. I have gotten to this place." And it's almost like the literal gates he lived behind were symbolic of the choices that he made and the place that he got to. I can't speak to why he said that. You could answer in a cynical way, but I don't know.
Everything about his life and how he led it are so interconnected and intertwined with these basic American themes of aspiration.
Strachan: After a while, you want answers. You want to figure the guy out. But at some point, did you just have to decide "I'm never going to figure the guy out," and it's just a matter of embracing the ambiguity.
Again, it gets back to asking about the FX show specifically or even asking about the way O.J. has been portrayed in our culture. Which is, even from the time the murders happened, and going forward, there was a reductive way that I think we have all looked at him. Not just literally what he did, you know, before in terms of accomplishments or how impactful he was as a cultural figure, but, like, he's a really complex person. A really complex, intelligent person. That can't be summed up in any way or reduced to something.
And I think that was something I really wanted to be able to, at least attempt to, offer -- offer something that was a fuller portrait. Everything about his life and how he led it are so interconnected and intertwined with these basic American themes of aspiration, of individual achievement and shedding your past. There's always a new identity that can be formed.
He's constantly outrunning his selves. It's the notion of what Bob talked about [during the panel]. He thinks he's crazy. I don't know if he's crazy. But I do think there's this thing where you wonder how much he was truly in touch with himself and who he was. But that also speaks to even after the murders happened, you almost get the feeling that like, "OK, I just went through this ordeal, now how can I keep going? So now I put that past me, how do I shed that image? Oh, I can't shed that image. So how can I embrace this image for my own purpose." He's a guy that just keeps moving.
And again, I think that's just sort of fundamentally American.
The first part of "O.J.: Made in America" airs Saturday, June 11, on ABC. The rest of the series premieres on ESPN: Part two on Tuesday, June 14; part three on Wednesday, June 15; part four on Friday, June 17; and part five on Saturday, June 18.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.