The case for 'OJ: Made in America' for best picture at the 2017 Oscars


OJ: Made in America is the best film released in 2016. Over seven dazzling hours, it charts the meteoric rise and fall of Orenthal James Simpson, the black football star and actor who was acquitted in the 1994 murders of his white ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

With the possible exception of Moonlight, no film this year — or perhaps even of the last 20 years — has rendered such a singular, complex and powerful portrait of black American life. 

But OJ: Made in America will not win the Academy Award for best picture this Sunday. It wasn't even nominated in the category, nor for best director. It was nominated for just one Oscar: best documentary feature. Despite being eligible for awards in the non-documentary categories — including best picture, best director and best editing — not a single doc has been nominated for best picture since the academy started recognizing the medium in 1942

There's no good justification for this, besides the academy's stubborn habit of failing to appreciate the full breadth of documentaries' artistic merit.

Oscars politics are tricky. When it comes to best picture, academy voters tend to reward serious historical dramas, like 12 Years a Slave, Argo and The King's Speech; socially minded contemporary dramas like Spotlight and The Hurt Locker; and lighthearted, feel-good fare, like The Artist and Chicago. Most of these movies come through the traditional Hollywood studio system, or at least heavily feature studio talent. It stands to reason, then, that academy voters — a body made up overwhelmingly of industry professionals — would reward work done in their orbit.

Documentaries — which are often conceived, developed and executed outside of this system — are a tough sell by this standard. OJ began as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 TV project — a series of nonfiction films commissioned, produced and aired on the sports network. It aired in five parts on TV — a medium that stands in direct competition to the film industry — and underwent a specially-tailored eligibility process to qualify for the Academy Awards, including being screened multiple times a day in select movie theaters across the US over the course of a week in May 2016, before its TV air date in June. 

Documentaries also usually lack movie stars, so they don't get the automatic press or praise that accompanies them. For the Academy, this would seem to de-incentivize showcasing films that lack the industry's most bankable commodity.

But OJ should've broken the mold. Director Ezra Edelman strikes a remarkable balance with his film: He delivers a chilling psychological portrait of an accused killer and serial domestic abuser who emerged from the black ghettos of San Francisco only to reject his blackness and bask in the adoration of his white fans. But he also gives audiences sobering insight into black life in Los Angeles during the mid- to late-20th century — an experience marked by vicious police violence and no fewer than two urban uprisings: the Watts riots of 1965 and the LA riots of 1992.

Richard Shotwell/AP

There's no reason why a film with more depth, scope, drama, characterization and pitch-perfect pacing than any other this year should be ignored in the best picture race simply because it's nonfiction. 

When it comes to sheer craft and ambition, the film's TV origins prove to be a blessing rather than a curse. Its sprawling, episodic format is a perfect fit for the messy story that is Simpson's life. Television, of late, has opened doors to more ambitious storytelling opportunities than what's typically deemed tolerable for a theater-going audience to sit through. It's hard to imagine Edelman squeezing Simpson's childhood, USC years, rise to celebrity, torrid relationship with women — including Nicole — plus her murder, the trial and its bizarre aftermath into a two- or even three-hour film. And in truth, it would have made the film far worse had he tried to pare down the story any more.

This is the kind of formal innovation the academy should be embracing. OJ would be one of the least conventional best pictures in Oscars history, but it's one that would undeniably help the industry's credibility when it comes to rewarding quality, and showcase the academy's willingness to recognize something different. In light of recent criticism for its lack of racial diversity and failure to recognize the contributions of nonwhite talent, a win for OJ could have been the shot in the arm the Oscars really needed. What a loss.