Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America, which is airing on ESPN this week, focuses on more than just O.J. Simpson's life. Edelman's documentary also takes a deep dive into the racial tensions between police officers and the Black community over the years. The second episode of the docuseries delves into O.J. Simpson's relationship with Nicole Brown Simpson, but it also looks at the tensions between the LAPD and the Black community in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. Edelman's documentary features interviews with various members of the police force who served during those decades. "Los Angeles is unlike other places. If you're a celebrity, you have no color," Robin Greer, identified as a friend of Nicole Brown Simpson, says in the documentary. But for Black residents of L.A. who weren't as famous as O.J. Simpson, the circumstances were different. The episode focuses on the story of Rodney King, and the L.A. riots that broke out after his encounter with police. King, a Black taxi driver, was beaten by white police officers in 1991, after a high-speed chase. The incident was caught on camera. The four officers involved in King's beating were put on trial and acquitted, which led to the 1992 riots in L.A. The riots left more than 50 people dead; some of the documentary's sources suggested the LAPD didn't intervene enough to stop the violence. Buildings were destroyed, and damages were estimated at more than $1 billion, according to CNN. (King died in 2012 after saying the year prior that he'd forgiven the officers.)
The episode also tells the story of Eula Love, a Black woman who was shot in her front yard by LAPD officers in 1979. The cops were apparently sent to Love's home after she neglected to pay a utility bill for her gas service. They described their shooting of Love as self-defense, because she was holding a knife, as the Los Angeles Times explains. The district attorney's Special Investigations Division didn't file charges against the officers involved. Beyond these specific incidents, the documentary examines other factors suggesting the LAPD used excessive force against Black people. Police Chief Daryl Gates faced criticism for defending the department's use of chokeholds by arguing that Black people responded differently to them than "normal people" did. Gates also didn't earn favor by saying, "It doesn't make any difference, but it was a $69 gas bill," referencing the Eula Love case, which had been reported as being over an outstanding balance of $22. Additionally, he apologized after suggesting in 1978 that Latino police officers didn't advance in the department's ranks because they were "lazy," the documentary notes. Gates resigned in 1992, following the L.A. riots. The documentary presents both sides of the argument in conversation. Some sources say they'd never considered the LAPD racist. Yet former detective Mark Fuhrman, whom viewers may recognize from O.J. Simpson's trial, says, "This is what happens when you take away a tool that would have ended this in 10 seconds: chokehold," when addressing the Rodney King incident and its fallout. Viewers of Edelman's documentary may be surprised that two episodes into the five-part series, we still haven't delved into Simpson's trial. But O.J.: Made in America provides the context that's too often left out of the discussion surrounding the case. To truly understand the so-called "trial of the century," it's important to recognize the circumstances outside the courtroom, too.