Q&A: ‘OJ: Made in America’ Producer on ‘Transcending Race’ and Learning From History’s Transgressions

By Sameer Rao Jun 22, 2016

In the aftermath of his death, many media figures argued that Muhammad Ali transcended race despite his anti-war and Black nationalist advocacy. But while Ali actually risked his career and legacy to stand up for racial justice, O.J. Simpson actively worked to transcend the boundaries of race and achieve the acceptance of Whites—an acceptance that crashed down during his infamous mid-’90s trial for allegedly murdering White ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson.

That trial anchors various threads of Simpson’s life, from his upbringing to his prolific football and Hollywood careers to his current incarceration for robbery, and "O.J.: Made in America"—the five-part docu-series that aired June 11 – 18—features interviews with many people who were central to the case and his personal life. Prosecutors, defense lawyers, civil rights and Black church leaders, former friends and colleagues all came together to explore his journey within a broader examination of racism and police violence against Black communities in America and specifically Los Angeles, where Simpson played football at the University of Southern California and later solidified his celebrity profile.

We connected with producer Caroline Waterlow to discuss the key role race played in the series and what she learned from working on it. Read on for highlights from our conversation.

The series focuses on the idea of "transcending race," specifically the idea that Simpson sought to immerse himself in White society. Why did you choose that theme?

One story element I always found fascinating was the verdict and reaction to it. We show this in the film—a lot of White people in shock and a lot of Black people happy at the verdict. We wanted to unpack that a bit, go back in time and show the different experiences of people in L.A. history, like the fraught and violent history between Black people and the LAPD. And knowing that race became a central theme to a trial with a defendant once who famously said, "I’m not Black, I’m O.J."—we wanted to understand people’s reaction and understand O.J.’s motivations [throughout his life.]. He wanted to take a path that was about fame and corporate endorsements, be loved by everybody and try to "transcend race" in that way. Those elements came together for us to frame the movie from a race perspective.

The series shows how the trial’s overwhelming media coverage paved the way for future round-the-clock, often sensational coverage of events. Given how media has evolved in the two decades since the trial, do you think society will see any figures like him—Black celebrities with that kind of ubiquity, who can rise and fall so dramatically—in the future?

I don’t know that today’s celebrity culture is the same. At the time he became so beloved, there were a lot fewer media outlets. He was a crossover star, not just an athlete. And a whole new generation [who didn’t know about his football career] loved him in "The Naked Gun" and other media. I don’t know that there are stars as universally loved at the same level that people loved him up through the trial, or who could create the same level of drama.

Did you get a sense that any of the people featured in the film learned a lesson about race in America through their experiences?

[Prosecutor] Marcia Clark did talk about the massive underestimation of the race elements presented by the defense in the case. [District Attorney] Gil Garcetti talked about it too, and I think they did [eventually] realize how palpable the racial divide is in how people experience the world and perceive events.

What about you and director Ezra Edelman? Did you learn any lessons about race and racism while working on the film? 

I can’t speak for Ezra specifically, but I certainly did. I learned a lot of history about L.A., like the Latasha Harlins story, and other things that I was upset I didn’t know about before. People are maybe now more nationally connected on these topics than we were then, but at the time, mainstream media wasn’t covering them. So I certainly learned a lot the history of L.A. and the LAPD. that I was unaware of.

For millenials like myself who didn’t watch this trial live, what lessons about racism should we take away from the series?

As [then-Los Angeles city councilman and current L.A. County Board of Supervisors member] Mark Ridley-Thomas said in the series, "There is no more powerful narrative in America than race," which could not be more true. I think this film solidified some views rather than changed them. I mostly work on historical documentaries because I enjoy the process of re-discovering, unearthing and exploring the roots of something. So to see that you can literally trace the outcome of one event—a trial—and show that this is actually connected to not just decades of history, but literally hundreds of years of history, is stunning. I am continually amazed by that idea, and this film shows it in a particularly powerful way because it was a collective national, televised experience. Ezra and our team worked hard to make a lot of connections through time and show patterns and cycles in American culture. And as many times as people do this—in books, films, etc.—it is never finished, and that is why storytelling continues. You can’t let yourself think "its been done" or that you lived it so you know it. I like to think that every time its talked about, us talking now, or someone watching the film at home—that it is helping make the American cultural conversation a little richer and hopefully more productive.

Catch every episode of "O.J.: Made In America" via WatchESPN.