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In its powerful new documentary, 30 for 30 puts America on trial

At one point in O.J.: Made in America, O.J. Simpson and his tabloid drama are pre-empted by a newscast in favour of a presidential address. But the documentary shows that Simpson may cast a larger shadow over America than any president could. Civil rights, domestic abuse, celebrity culture, and the 24-hour news cycle receive more focus than tabloid shenanigans, showing not just their impact on the Simpson trial, but on the soul of America.

Of course, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series isn’t the first to discuss the infamous trial. After widespread critical and public acclaim of FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, another Simpson-focused series in the same year may seem unnecessary. But Made in America immediately sets itself apart from the FX series. While American Crime Story covered the trial from start to finish, 30 for 30 isn’t satisfied with such a limited scope.

As the series presents its varied perspectives, the documentary’s web of backgrounds and reasoning shows how complex the circumstances surrounding the trial were. To this end, Simpson isn’t present for much of the documentary. For every scene of Simpson’s meteoric rise to fame or shadowy home life, there’s a scene of the racial turmoil Simpson couldn’t be bothered with. Every time the documentary seems to turn toward a biography, it’s clear that its indictment of Simpson is also directed at America: a country that only turned an eye towards racial injustice when it began to affect the rich, the famous, and the white.

In many ways, Made in America lays out its evidence in a way the trial should have. Unlike many documentaries and unlike the actual trial which had many competing narrators, there is no narrator interpreting the facts for us, just one hint at 30 for 30’s best effort to avoid bias. People portrayed as villainous get a chance to speak for themselves, and even heroic figures show cracks in their armour. When so many of the real people and so much of the actual footage is available, a re-enactment can’t quite compare.

The Simpson trial may seem trifling, another tabloid scandal, but 30 for 30 makes it clear that this is the symptom of a larger disease in America. This is not just a TV show for people fascinated by the world of celebrity and glamour; this is for people who want a look at how western society struggled and changed over half a century. Simpson, a man who couldn’t care less about any greater good beyond himself, may seem like an odd subject for such an examination, but the wake of destruction he left for the people surrounding him and the nation that let him thrive proves illuminating. Perhaps any real-life incident — if every camera in the nation were pointed at it — would provide such a portrait, but for the latter half of the 20th century, we have Simpson. While he may have been made in America, Made in America shows that Simpson is a large part of what America is today.

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