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Cops on TV: 'OJ: Made in America' and the LAPD's troubled race relations

OJ Simpson, from
OJ Simpson, from "OJ: Made in America"
Mickey Osterreicher, Courtesy ESPN Films

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When riots raged for a week in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, news cameras documented the violent clashes between the Los Angeles Police Department and the black residents. But in the context of 2016, watching that footage in the ESPN documentary "O.J.: Made in America" feels oddly resonant. 

According to Bernard Parks, who was the LAPD chief from 1997-2002, the footage of the 1965 riots showed the nation something that people in communities of color in LA knew all too well.

The Watts riot was one of the first major events in the city of L.A. that was caught on TV. People who grew up looking at those kinds of activities in the South, they thought that's where all of the racial divide was. The only thing that was missing in L.A. is there weren't dogs.

Parks is one of many voices in the seven plus hour documentary which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, then screened in theaters and on ESPN in May. While the film is named for O.J. Simpson, Director Ezra Edelman tells The Frame's John Horn that he wasn't interested in O.J.'s guilt or innocence. The larger themes were about race in America and how the 1994-95 trial polarized the public. Edelman sought to put the O.J. story in the context of a city that had wrestled for decades, well before the 1991 Rodney King beating, with a contentious relationship between the black community and the LAPD. This is what makes an interview with Ezra Edelman, director of "O.J.: Made in America," a fitting installment in "The Frame's" Cops on TV series.

To hear the full interview click the play button in the top left of this page or get the podcast on iTunes. Interview highlights below.

Interview Highlights:

Viewing the Rodney King beating as a teenager in Washington, D.C.:

That was an event that I remember engaging with, but it wasn't necessarily what the conversation was at home that I remember. But where I went to high school — I went to a quaker school in Washington. So every week we have something called meeting for worship. The entire student body sits in the gym and you sit in silence unless you are moved to speak. There are many of these weeks where you sit in meeting for worship for what is 45 minutes, a duration of a class period, and no one speaks. I was someone who would never be moved to speak because what's so important for me to get up in front of four hundred people. That's never going to happen. But that meeting for worship after Rodney King was beaten by the cops and after that video came out was by far the most memorable event that I remember in that room. All of the sudden there were kids who were engaging with the truth and this reality of what's happening in our world and expressing themselves in a way that you just didn't hear teenagers talking about. That was a little bit of an awakening because I grew up in a sheltered sort of environment. So despite of whatever would happen at home there are plenty of things that I had heard and talked about with my parents about the world, but that was a different thing because it was actually happening as a discussion amongst peers and not with parents who can say, this is what I once did. So that had a different affect on me than something honestly that if I were sitting at a dinner table and my parents were droning on about, I would just go, yeah, la la la la. 

How police treatment of black citizens is being discussed in the Presidential campaign:

It's just interesting when you have a question that is posed to both candidates and to Hillary about race in America and what she would say. And honestly, did I love her answer? No. But when you flip to Trump and again, his response is well, there are two words: law and order. And you just sort of go to this place of, oh right, he's speaking to his base. That's fine. But just these words and the idea of how police officers over the course of decades have been trained, especially in Los Angeles. It just immediately goes to a place if you are a person of color of listening to how these incidents come to be. And you're like, how could this actually come out of your mouth? This is exactly the problem. It's exactly the sort of lack of empathy when it comes to, don't you understand how millions of people are absorbing police forces across America and you're saying the exact wrong three words? 

How audiences of different ages and races respond to "O.J.: Made in America":

There's a sense from older viewers of an appreciation for weaving together these events in a way that makes the specific events of '94 and '95 more understood and clarified. There is a sense from the younger viewers of, I didn't know any of this. I didn't know anything about who O.J. was. I was sort of ignorant of this entire history. And there is, in that way, a sort of gratitude that I feel. Frankly, there's been a lot of — and I can't really speak to who in a theater versus people talking to me who have seen it on television — white people who go, I never understood this. 

“O.J.: Made in America” will screen at Cinefamily in Los Angeles on October 9th and other limited theaters. It’s also available now on iTunes, HULU, ESPN video-on-demand. To get more content like this, listen to "The Frame" podcast on iTunes.

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