Last month, I reviewed the ESPN "30 for 30" documentary "Straight Outta LA" about the LA Raiders connection to local gangs, which was directed by Ice Cube. I was sent a press screener of the next ESPN documentary entitled "June 17, 1994" directed by Brett Morgen. I also had the opportunity to interview Morgen.
June 17, 1994 is a day that will live in infamy in Los Angeles, as it had the famous OJ slow speed chase. But it was also one of the busier sports days in recent memories, as it included Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals, the New York Rangers Stanley Cup parade, the Opening Ceremonies for the World Cup (held in the US), Arnold Palmer's last US Open, and Ken Griffey, Jr. hitting his 30th home run (3 weeks before the All-Star Break).
Like most of the ESPN "30 for 30" documentaries, this one is excellent. But this documentary strikes a particular nerve for LA residents, as it reminds all of us who lived here about a day when our entire city was essentially besieged by OJ Simpson.
Instead of conducting interviews, like most documentaries, Morgen simply shows all of the live footage from that day and lets the video speak for itself. It's a style that he calls "experiential cinema." The result is a trip back to some uncomfortable memories that many of us have tried to forget. We get to witness this incredible scene where OJ's Ford Bronco is slowly driving along the 405. The freeway is completely shut down in one direction. In the other direction, people have stopped their cars on the 405 and on overpasses above and cheering for OJ, many chanting "Free the Juice!"
Amidst the frenzy and the widescale outcry of support for Simpson, Morgen shows a KCAL 9 interview with a PhD named Rex Beaber who offers some tough advice for viewers: "Most people have to realize, an innocent person doesn't behave this way..." referring of course to Simpson's decision to flee his home on the day he was supposed to be arrested and leave behind a letter that sounded like a suicide note.
"Sixteen years removed, everyone's opinions of OJ are defined by the trial and the murder," Morgan said when I spoke with him. "We brought the audience back in time to when he was a hero, when people were in disbelief about what had happened."
"Here is this guy who's life is falling apart, but you don't want to sympathize with him because you know the outcome," he added.
Morgen chooses to edit the documentary from the perspective of a viewer watching TV that day. So we feel like someone flipping the channels from the World Cup Opening Ceremonies to the Rangers Stanley Cup parade to Arnold Palmer's performance to the ongoing news that day which started with OJ Simpson's disappearance. We see press conferences featuring former DA Gil Garcetti and OJ's lawyer team of Robert Schapiro and Robert Kardashian.
Throughout all of it, we get shots of a truly flummoxed media that has no idea how to cover this event. News directors from local LA TV stations will be embarrassed to see these clips again. The state of confusion is best evidenced from footage we see of Bob Costas at Madison Square Garden, debating with producers as to when NBC should cut away from the NBA Finals and switch to Tom Brokaw covering the Ford Bronco chase. Much to the consternation of New York Knicks and Houston Rockets fans, NBC did switch away from the game.
"Despite having the best basketball players in the world competing for the championship, the audience decides 'we don't want to see the Knicks. We just want to see a white Bronco go down the freeway,'" Morgen says. "You just didn't know what was going to happen next."
Beyond the news footage of the day, Morgen also produces cell phone conversations between Al Cowlings and Simpson in the Bronco and a LAPD detective. The phone conversations seemingly bring the viewer inside the van and add a whole new perspective to the slow speed chase.
If you want to relive one of the wildest days in the history of this city, then you should probably check this documentary out. It airs tomorrow (Wednesday) at 7 PM on ESPN and replays several times throughout the next few weeks.