O.J.: Made in America: Criminal Focus

Curator's Note

In ESPN’s five-part 30 for 30 documentary O.J.: Made In America (2016), Ezra Edelman presents a highly polished and well-researched biographical profile of O.J. Simpson, a seemingly larger-than-life figure whose psyche was forged over time by poverty, race, talent, and celebrity. As suggested by the documentary’s title, this true crime miniseries builds its story around O.J. Simpson, and the path towards an apex that the audience already knows: the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

This focus on O.J. Simpson, the alleged perpetrator of these murders, subverts the narrative framing of many true crime television programs in a troubling way. O.J.: Made In America does not focus on the crime victims, or their families and friends, like an episode of Disappeared. Nor does it celebrate the work of the police department or the prosecutors, as would a typical episode of Forensic Files. This unusual narrative crime framing—the focus on the perpetrator, rather than the victims—points to an intriguing trend. In the last two years there have been several precedents, including the examinations of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey in Making A Murderer (Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, 2015) and Robert Durst in The Jinx (Andrew Jarecki, 2015). Why choose this narrative framing, and not another? There are questions of celebrity here as well—is the focus on these men because they were famous before, or after, allegedly committing these crimes? Also, all three miniseries have been taken seriously by audiences and critics as “higher-art” versions of true crime storytelling. Is the implication here that these “inverted,” acclaimed programs somehow transcend the offerings of the cable channel Investigation Discovery?

In some ways these “inverted” true crime programs call out for the creation of parallel texts, such as The Murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, an in-depth examination of domestic violence, police inaction, and the power and privilege attached to celebrity in the United States.

Comments

Staci Stutsman's picture

quality and gender

Great post, Amanda! I, too, am interested in discourses of quality around these perpetrators (who are usually men). It’s notabe to see where the versions of the parallel texts are cropping up. For instance, Kathie Durst’s story is in the work at Lifetime ( http://deadline.com/2016/08/robert-durst-movie-in-works-lifetime-bettina... ). The stories of victims (who are often women) often crop up on channels that do not lend these stories the presitige associated with quality tv.

Leslie Rowen's picture

Criminal vs. Victim Representation

That’s a great addition, Staci. As far as victim stories go, Lifetime and Hallmark seem to run the show. Unfortunately, these companies are not known for their quality…I wonder if victims do not receive the same treatment as criminals in these programs out of respect for their privacy? I know that often families of victims view these projects as an exploitation of an awful situation. Perhaps the reason why there are so many examples of shows focused on criminals is because it seems more acceptable to intrude on their lives after committing a heinous crime. I’m really not sure, but it’s something to think about.

George S. Larke-Walsh's picture

Quality Narratives

These comments make me think of the documentary, ‘The Imposter’ that also focuses on the perpetrator. Your post is very thought-provoking Amanda and I agree with you all that the victims stories are not treated in the same way, in that they don’t achieve the same level of prestige. It may be linked to the current fascination with the ‘criminal mind’. The continued popularity of serial killer narratives that have emerged since Hannibal Lecter points to this. I also agree with Leslie - that it is perhaps more acceptable to intrude on the private world of those who commit heinous crime.

Amanda Keeler's picture

Thanks for this discussion

Thanks for this discussion everyone. Staci, I wasn’t aware of the upcoming Lifetime movie about Kathie Durst. I will definitely watch it when it airs. I think the thoughts about “quality” tv are important, and very telling in terms of which stories get told, where they appear, and whether they are deemed “art” or “trash.” I would love to see the conversation shift a little though. Perhaps we should approach Lifetime and other cable channels, like Investigation Discovery, acknowledging their contributions to true crime storytelling without necessarily marking them as “less than.” As Leslie mentioned, I think questions of privacy are always an important part of these discussions. The Goldman family clearly wants to share Ronald’s story with audiences, but for other families, revisiting a family tragedy is likely not worth the pain. George brings up another aspect of framing, crime stories that focus on the mind of the perpetrator, which this OJ documentary certainly does. My original post stemmed from the fact that I am most interested in how true crime tells victims’ stories, rather than the other way around. In the case of OJ, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, the added element of “celebrity” complicates this.

Staci Stutsman's picture

I agree

Yes, I definitely agree that the conversation needs to shift. I was not intending to re-entrench it or assert that they were “less than.” Rather, I was just pointing to that discourse. I, too, will continue to look forward to more of the “inverted” true crime programs that you call for. I’ll be very interested in seeing how Kathie Durst’s story gets told. It’ll be telling to see how these stories are told and by whom.

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