'O.J.: Made in America' won worldwide admiration for its astounding standards.
Chris Reed, Tribune News Service
Three lengthy, popular, highly regarded documentaries have come out in recent years that have as a goal nothing less than changing how we think about the past.
“O.J.: Made in America” — the five-part, seven-hour and 47-minute documentary released by ESPN in 2016 — is a staggering journalistic achievement with a 100% positive ranking on Rotten Tomatoes and an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Director Ezra Edelman’s starting point is, of course, the June 12, 1994, stabbing deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman outside her house in Brentwood, California. Her former husband — former football superstar, Hertz TV ad rep and actor O.J Simpson — was immediately identified as a suspect and taken into custody after a nationally televised slow-speed chase. He was tried the next year and acquitted by a mostly Black jury after a lengthy trial.
Edelman deals with angles that have been addressed before — the fact that O.J.’s history of domestic violence against Nicole somehow wasn’t held against him; the strength of the evidence he was the killer; the stunning number of misjudgments by the prosecution, etc.
But his documentary is ultimately a sweeping, intricately detailed commentary on race in America — and on the Grand Canyon-sized gap between America’s ideals and how Black people in Los Angeles have been treated by the Los Angeles Police Department. In Edelman’s persuasive telling, the not-guilty verdict was more a comment on this backdrop than anything else.
In 2020, “The Last Dance” — the 10-part, 10-hour documentary series about the 1997-98 season of the Chicago Bulls directed by Jason Hehir and co-produced by ESPN and Netflix — also dealt with familiar angles: Michael Jordan’s contempt for general manager Jerry Krause, how global adoration for MJ made his daily routine akin to life in a well-provisioned prison and, of course, his genius at basketball.
But as the documentary unfolds, its major takeaway is Jordan’s borderline pathological competitive intensity — only starting with the relentless bullying of his teammates, including punching the much smaller Steve Kerr in the face. A 1991 book called “The Jordan Rules” made the point that he was a taskmaster, but “The Last Dance” has long segments that make him seem like a monster — a compelling one, but still a monster.
The production company behind the documentary wants you to know that the Jordan sold to the public — via “Space Jam,” offbeat Nike commercials often directed by Spike Lee, his jokey appearances with David Letterman and Jay Leno, and charming turns on Oprah Winfrey’s show — was a myth. The company is controlled by Jordan. He’s telling the world he was proud to have been an antisocial maniac. It’s bizarre.
The third film in this unusual triptych is “Get Back,” director Peter Jackson’s three-part, 468-minute documentary released on Disney+ in November. Jackson mined 150 hours of audio and 60 hours of mostly never before seen video footage from several weeks with the Beatles in early 1969 when the band came up with many of the songs for the “Let It Be” album, then performed them on the roof of Apple music headquarters in London. A previous, much-shorter 1970 documentary based on the footage — “Let It Be” — painted a picture of a band falling apart. John Lennon accepted but resented Paul McCartney’s emergence as de facto leader of the world’s biggest band. George Harrison seemed to constantly be seething over something. Lennon’s ever-present girlfriend, Yoko Ono, was reviled by many who saw the film and blamed her for driving the band apart.
Yet Jackson makes the case that the moments of discord were tiny compared with the times that Lennon and McCartney took such obvious joy in kibbitzing on each other’s songs. The giddy way one Beatle would start playing other bands’ obscure hits from the 1950s and 1960s and everyone would join in is something to behold. There is no evidence in Jackson’s retelling that Ono was a disruption. A scene in which she has a lively, lengthy conversation with Linda McCartney as the band plays in the background cuts against the Yoko-as-destroyer theme.
There was drama. Harrison briefly quit the band — leading to a stunning audio clip of Lennon and McCartney talking about bringing in a much better guitarist, Eric Clapton, to replace him. But Lennon, McCartney and Ringo Starr went to meet with Harrison — without cameras present — and persuaded him to return.
By the time keyboard whiz Billy Preston showed up to hang with his old friends and wound up playing on several songs — including the joyous title track — the band didn’t seem angry or divided at all. Instead, its members seemed united. In interviews, Jackson has said that there was not a single snide exchange between band members in all 210 hours of video and audio tapes.
This is far from what we’ve been led to believe.
So will documentaries about events that occurred after smartphones, Twitter and Instagram emerged be as able to change our view of the past as “O.J.: Made in America,” “The Last Dance” and “Get Back”?
It seems unlikely. There’s such a never-ending flood of information about famous people that there are far fewer famous people with any sense of mystery about them. Instead, there’s almost a monotonous familiarity with so many. The famous actress Greta Garbo’s “I want to be alone” vibe is rare nowadays. “I want to be known” is the new mantra.
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