O.J. and Amanda: Will Television Productions Revitalize the Documentary?
You know awards season is approaching (or well underway) when people start making short lists of documentaries to watch by year’s end. What critics groups have to say about Fantastic Beasts, Doctor Strange, or Rogue One is unlikely to make much difference to these films’ bottom lines. But for documentaries that move from festival circuit almost directly to the long tail, every bit of recognition counts.
That fact explains, if not quite justifies, the theatrical push for ESPN’S O.J.: Made in America. With a run-time just shy of eight hours and and episodic structure, Made in America is perhaps a better representative of binge-worthy television than epic cinema.
Oh, I soaked up every delicious minute of ESPN’s trial-of-the-century reunion show, don’t get me wrong. I even learned a few things along the way. Early on, with the description of Los Angeles, I thought the film might also use Simpson’s life to spiral outward and tell a larger story about America. Perhaps it does…or tries to do so. But only as one thread among many.
That the film–when thought of as a film–lacks focus, is paradoxically both a minor and major quibble. The parts are all interesting. But it’s the nature of serial television that it abhors resolution, and consequently it is usually ambivalent about reflection. We get hindsight: Marcia Clark continues to remind everyone that she warned Chris Darden against the glove demonstration. We get revelation: a juror contemptuously dismisses Nicole Brown’s victimization by saying she has no respect for anyone who takes one more beating than she has to. On a couple of occasions we even get the filmmakers gently interrogating the participants. Was the verdict “payback” for Rodney King? Was Johnnie Cochran’s comparison of Mark Fuhrman to Hitler unethical? Rarely, though–never that I could recall–does the film push back at defensive or evasive responses. The result is an interesting mosaic but one without as much of a point-of-view as some might wish for.
Made in America was released before the 2016 Presidential election. There are a lot of connections astute viewers might make between the case it documents and the politics of the current moment. We see the dismissal of science, the seduction of the media, and, most of all, a lot of misplaced anger. Although some people come off worse than others — the jurors, Carl E. Douglas, Barry Scheck — nobody really comes off well, except for maybe Ron Shipp. His description of how and when he changed his mind about refusing to testify against Simpson is one of the more moving scenes in the documentary. What is most disheartening about his story is not that nobody (at the time) is surprised he thinks O.J. did it, it’s that they are surprised that makes any difference to Shipp when being asked to help get O.J. off. Increasingly our politics and our courts, are just sport and theater. Those who win are celebrities. Those who lose are forgotten. Those who die are irrelevant.
At just over ninety minutes, Netflix’s Amanda Knox is in a few ways the opposite of O.J.: Made in America. It’s brief. It has a point of view. It offers the participation of the central accused figure. And it got a festival release (TIFF), to try to bolster its awards consideration.
Like the O.J. documentary, it juxtaposes archival media footage with talking-head interviews conducted with the principals. The most important comparison to the other case is, of course, that O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in a court of law (but most people now think he did it), while Amanda Knox was initially convicted of murder.
In the film’s opening sequence, the present-day Knox opines that she is either a monster who should be feared or a representative symbol of the average person’s deepest fear. I did not initially follow Knox’s case when it was plastered all over the tabloids and court television. I only really became aware of it through the analysis of John Douglas in Law & Disorder. It’s hard, coming at the case in retrospect, to see how anyone other than the one policeman in the documentary whose professional reputation is at stake could continue to believe Knox is guilty.
That being the case, Amanda Knox misses an opportunity to explore why so many people were ready to believe in her guilt and overlook the glaring holes in the prosecution’s case. Confirmation bias is a real problem in all walks of life, and people, even those without a personal or professional stake in matters, appear more loath to admit they may have jumped to conclusions than they are anxious to see justice actually done.
The lack of any serious, credible doubts regarding Knox’s innocence make the film’s frame disappointing. It’s almost as though it is trying the milk the last little bits of suspicion to create false suspense rather than exploring any number of potentially fascinating angles. What are the psychological effects of imprisonment? What gender stereotypes contributed to the demonization of Knox? What do cases like this one and that of the Central Park Five teach us regarding the false confidence we place in confessions? Amanda Knox is not a bad movie, but its a maddeningly inconsequential one. It takes a high-profile subject and skims along its surface, making its viewers feel smarter than they probably should for already knowing most of what it is saying.