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The problem of race in America

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Ezra Edelman, producer director of the Academy Award winning documentary O.J.: Made in America speaks on the issues raised in his film about race, celebrity and the criminal justice system.

The story of O.J. Simpson has been told in so many forms previously. How did you find such a fresh and captivating angle?

I think one way was knowing what exactly was not fresh about it and that was consistent about what I found to be not interesting. I didn't want to make a film about a murder trial and questions of guilt or innocence. People have been caught up in that conversation for two decades without any meaningful progress.

A driving principal was the question how can we reframe this narrative? For me, what was worthwhile was telling a story that was rooted in a history that had been underserved and not understood by a certain population in our country. I quickly realised there were people who didn't properly understand all sides of the experience of African Americans in Los Angeles and what they've gone through in the criminal justice system. I realised I can make a film where you can emotionally engage and be empathetic. Then when you arrive at the trial, you go, ‘oh, that's what this was all about. Oh, this wasn't about people cheering a murderer going free. This was nothing to do with that.’ It's amazing that people didn't already get that.

Was race always going to be the central theme for O.J.: Made in America?

In a word, yes. It was a film about the deep-rootedness of race in America. This film could have started much earlier. It could have started in the 16th century. That was the basis.

But once I started making the film, I realised that it's a story that cannot properly be encapsulated just by race. It’s about celebrity, identity, masculinity, class, gender, hero worship, the media and the criminal justice system. It's about the American dream fundamentally - who has access to it and who doesn't.

Yes, it's a story primarily about race but it's a story about all these other things. I think that's also why people respond to it. We've all had some experience in our life that is touched upon by this story somehow.

Were there any questions left unanswered in your investigation?

Honestly, no. I understood, fundamentally, the things that you would be able to get at and the things that you wouldn't. If I had set out to make a film trying to further understand what happened on June 12 1994 then maybe I'd be like, "Yes, I have this question." That's not what the film was about and I never burdened myself with that. I obviously have an opinion of that crime and his complicity in it. I think it’s pretty clear in watching the film.

But the questions I have were the motivating forces for making the film. What was going on in his brain when he was 21 years old with this burgeoning celebrity in an incredibly fraught time to be black? Did he look around in the world that he found himself at a university full of rich white people who were all kissing his ass and said, ‘Oh, maybe I can transcend this black thing’? To me that was the defining moment in his life where he went one way and the world and his peers were aligned in a different way. Those are the questions I still have. That's what makes me curious about him as a character.

One of the key themes of the film is ignorance. How have audiences reacted to that idea?

I feel like we have done a really good job of making people stupid in our country over the past 50 years. So if this is an illustration of that and people can see that - great.

You can look at the film and through the character that is OJ, even the choices that he's made and where we've ended up now, you can see where we've lost our way. He embodies a superficiality that has come to mark our society with a focus on celebrity and self. In 1967, when he became a national football star, it was the most politically fraught time in twentieth century America. But he went the other way and he was all about superficiality and self-possession. When you trace the trajectory of that 50 year period and you understand how he won. We followed him. I think there is a lesson in that.

It seems not much has changed in America. What do you see as the race problem in America currently?

I interpret it as a reaction to eight years of having a black president and having a certain part of the population feel threatened by where we're going in our culture and having a real desire to take their country back. When you think about the term white supremacy or even hegemony - it's still the basis of our country. For those of us who aren't white, it's almost like there's a level of delusion that's set in of we are evolving to a point where this is becoming reality. What we didn't realise is how entrenched that need for power is and what happens when you lose it.

But if there's nothing else the film taught me, it's that nothing is so reductive. There are also millions of people who are not happy with their circumstances and what their opportunities are.