Chris Reed: How three ambitious documentaries seek to change our view of the past

Three long, popular and much-loved documentaries have come out in recent years and aim to change the way we think about the past.

“OJ: Made in America” — the five-part, seven-hour, 47-minute documentary released by ESPN in 2016 — is a stunning journalistic achievement with a 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Director Ezra Edelman’s starting point is, of course, the June 12, 1994, stabbing deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman outside his home in Brentwood. Her estranged husband – former soccer superstar, Hertz TV advertising rep and actor OJ Simpson – was immediately identified as a suspect and taken into custody after a slow-paced nationwide televised chase. He was tried the following year and acquitted by a mostly black jury after a lengthy trial.

Edelman deals with angles that have been touched on before — the fact that OJ’s domestic violence story against Nicole somehow wasn’t held against him; the strength of the evidence that he was the killer; the impressive number of errors of judgment on the part of the prosecution, etc.

But his documentary is ultimately an in-depth and complex commentary on race in America – and on the Grand Canyon-sized gap between American ideals and how black people in Los Angeles were treated by the Los Angeles Police Department. Angeles. In Edelman’s persuasive account, the not-guilty verdict was more a commentary on this backdrop than anything else.

In 2020, “The Last Dance” – the 10-part, 10-hour documentary series about the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 season directed by Jason Hehir and co-produced by ESPN and Netflix – also dealt with familiar angles: Michael Jordan’s contempt for the general manager Jerry Krause, how the worldwide adoration for MJ made his daily routine akin to life in a well-stocked prison and, of course, his basketball genius.

But as the documentary unfolds, its main advantage is Jordan’s pathological borderline competitive intensity – starting with the relentless bullying of his teammates, including punching the much smaller Steve Kerr in the face. . A 1991 book titled “The Jordan Rules” emphasized that he was a leader, but “The Last Dance” has long segments that make him look like a monster – an irresistible, but still a monster.

The production company behind the documentary wants you to know that the Jordan sold out to the public – via “Space Jam”, quirky Nike commercials often directed by Spike Lee, his wacky appearances with David Letterman and Jay Leno, and charming tricks on the Oprah Winfrey show – was a myth. The company is controlled by Jordan. He tells the world he was proud to have been an antisocial maniac. It’s weird.

The third film in this unusual triptych is “Get Back,” director Peter Jackson’s three-part, 468-minute documentary released on Disney+ in November. Jackson extracted 150 hours of audio and 60 hours of mostly unreleased video footage from several weeks with the Beatles in early 1969 when the band came up with many songs for the “Let It Be” album and then performed them. on the roof of the Apple Music headquarters in London.

A much shorter earlier 1970 documentary based on the footage – “Let It Be” – painted a picture of a group falling apart. John Lennon agreed but disliked Paul McCartney’s emergence as the de facto leader of the world’s greatest band. George Harrison constantly seemed to be bubbling over something. Lennon’s ever-present girlfriend, Yoko Ono, was reviled by many who saw the film and blamed her for breaking up the band.

Still, Jackson argues that the moments of contention were miniscule compared to the times when Lennon and McCartney took such obvious joy at kibbitzing over each other’s songs. The dizzying way a Beatle would start playing the obscure hits of other bands from the 1950s and 1960s and everyone would join in is something to behold. There is no evidence in Jackson’s account that Ono was a disturbance. A scene in which she has a long, lively conversation with Linda McCartney as the band plays in the background against the Yoko-as-destroyer theme.

There was a tragedy. Harrison briefly quit the band – leading to a stunning audio clip of Lennon and McCartney talking about bringing in a much better guitarist, Eric Clapton, to replace him. But Lennon, McCartney and Ringo Starr went to meet Harrison – with no cameras present – and persuaded him to return.

By the time keyboard genius Billy Preston showed up to hang out with his old friends and ended up jamming on several songs — including the joyful title track — the band didn’t sound angry or divided at all. Instead, its members seemed united. In interviews, Jackson said there was not a single snide exchange between the band members during the 210 hours of video and audio tapes.

This is far from what we were led to believe.

Thus, documentaries about events after the emergence of smartphones, Twitter and Instagram will be as capable of changing our vision of the past as “OJ: Made in America”, “The Last Dance” and “Get Back “?

It seems unlikely. There is such an endless stream of information about famous people that there are far fewer famous people with a sense of mystery about them. Instead, there’s almost a dull familiarity with so many people.

Famous actress Greta Garbo’s “I want to be alone” vibe is rare these days. “I want to be known” is the new mantra.

Reed is associate editor of the editorial and opinion section. Column archive: Twitter: @calwhine. Email: [email protected]

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