Review: OJ: Made in America
By Mia O Neill
In ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America,” a blurring of lines between an individual’s story and societal issues
Midway through the third installment of ESPN’s 2016 series “O.J.: Made in America,” a line from O.J. Simpson’s trial diary appears, which effectively sums up the entire documentary.
“I’ve never ever in my life looked at race,” Simpson states. “Now, all of a sudden, the system has forced me to look at things racially.”
Most everyone — even those, like myself, too young to remember the events as they happened at the time — knows the basic story of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. An African-American football star-turned-overall-celebrity accused of murdering his estranged white wife and another man, the fairytale story of one of America’s most beloved sports heroes of the century forever marred by the possibility that this larger-than-life persona could be a killer.
But looming beneath was an undercurrent of inescapable irony: an ugly history of racial injustice and police brutality in Los Angeles, of a city divided extraordinarily along color lines between haves and have-nots. And of a superstar, who for so long declined to be a spokesman for the suffering of fellow black Americans, unfittingly becoming the symbol of a movement that completely transcended his own case.
The Ezra Edelman documentary allows the two contrasting storylines — of Simpson’s personal rise to fame and life of privilege, and of the simultaneous escalation of tensions between the Los Angeles Police Department and the poor black community on the other side of town — to develop organically and run parallel to one another. Not until the third episode of the series did the two plots converge, as the extent to which the black community comes to identify with Simpson — both by virtue history and by the persuasiveness of the defense attorneys — makes it clear that the trial of Orenthal James Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman has far eclipsed the actual details of the story.
“O.J.: Made in America” asks a heavy question: is it right for someone with overwhelming evidence of guilt to be allowed to go free in order to bright light — and justice — to a larger cultural issue?
The film begins with Simpson’s rise to fame as a star running back at USC, a school famous not only for its football program, but also for its inherent associations with whiteness and money, the glitz and glam of LA. Here’s a kid who grew up in the projects of San Francisco and, by virtue of his extraordinary athletic ability, has found himself suddenly in the midst of decadence — and he likes it. As he leaves college and goes on to a pro career in the NFL, the incalculably-charming O.J. continues to ingratiate himself with white America, signing marketing deals with Hertz and becoming a regular personality on mainstream talk shows.
At the same time, though, the “other half” of Simpson’s adopted home of Los Angeles is going through hell. The Los Angeles Police Department, under the direction of notorious hardliner chief Daryl Gates, is implementing a brutal regimen of racial profiling, complete with chokeholds, beatings and dehumanizing drug raids. While O.J. is living the life of a king, others in the black community are being treated like animals.
As we shift between the story of Simpson’s rising star and that of the rising police violence across town, there’s a discernible link between the escalation of the former and the latter. As the clashes between the LAPD and the city’s black community worsen — reaching a head when four police officers were, unprecedentedly, arrested for the brutal assault of a man named Rodney King in 1991, leading to large-scale riots — Simpson’s celebrity status continues to grow. But even as other black athletes are taking a stand against the injustices their community is suffering not only in California but across the country, Simpson remains steadfastly opposed not only to reaching out to these communities, but to acknowledging his own race at all. “His voice was mute on any issue related to black people and our salvation,” recalls civil rights activist Danny Bakewell (who nevertheless spoke up for Simpson’s innocence during the trial). “He was just a non-entity.”
There were other disturbing patterns emerging as O.J. shuttled further into stardom. His overwhelming ego and sense of entitlement, acquaintances agree, was evident in a number of ways, from the seemingly benign (a near-compulsive need to remain in the limelight post-retirement as a TV personality) to the downright damning (his womanizing behavior, jealousy, and violent inclinations against women and others damaged his ego). And yet, friends explained, somehow, for the longest time, his charm allowed him to get away with it.
But the bad stories continued, and worsened. Calls to the police amidst his strained relationship with second wife Nicole became more frightening until even the police in his swanky suburb of Brentsville — many of whom were his buddies — couldn’t ignore the obvious, and he was arrested and given community service for beating her. And it didn’t stop there. Despite his own extensive list of affairs while they were together, Simpson was unable to accept, as acquaintances explained it, being incapable of controlling Nicole — leading to stalking, more violence, and, almost certainly, the murder of his estranged wife and the man at her home in the summer of 1994.
The number of friends who, during and after the trial, become disillusioned with Simpson (based on the preponderance of evidence against him and his continued penchant for lying) is staggering. And yet, against all odds (to an outsider’s view, at least), much of the black community that once distrusted him rallied around him — even after DNA tests and a host of other condemning evidence made his guilt all but clear. At one point, near the end of the trial, a TV reporter announces that — despite incriminating evidence — 72 percent of black Americans believed that Simpson was innocent.
Why? The answer was simple: this had become so much larger a story than just that of O.J. himself. The black community, not only of Los Angeles, but of the United States, so long ignored and mistreated by law enforcement, finally had a viable chance to get behind someone who could be a symbol of justice for them — to the point where it would be hard to separate oneself and look at the facts of this particular individual from a neutral standpoint.
And Simpson’s defense team capitalized on that. Coupled with some condemning information on detective Mark Fuhrman’s past racist behavior (as well as evidence of poorly-executed procedures on the part of the criminologists), defense attorneys Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey and their team made a compelling appeal to the jury — many of whom were lower-income African-Americans — for Simpson’s innocence… through blurring the lines of his own case and the larger issue of racial injustice in America. It worked.
The documentary’s choice not to employ a central narrator is an effective one, in that it allows the voices of those interviewed — friends and former friends, business partners, journalists, activists, prosecutors, attorneys, relatives of the deceased — to tell the story themselves, from their varying perspectives. It allows the viewer to remain questioning throughout: though the majority of the voices are of people who either believed, or have come to believe, that Simpson was guilty, allowing them to relate the events in their own words — here and there backed up by footage of news headlines and TV clips — lets viewers uncover the complex nature of this case on their own terms.
Still, there are aspects of the documentary that could have benefitted from a connecting voiceover — particularly for younger viewers, who are less familiar with the nuances of the case and, more significantly, the cultural impact it had. I, for one, would have found it helpful to have a voice introducing the different players who come into and out of the picture as the story progresses.
Ultimately, though, the film’s structure proves to be inspired, as the final installment — in which Simpson is sentenced to over 30 years in prison on charges of kidnap and armed robbery — provides a sobering end to the continuous downward sprial of the man who, by most accounts, was an undeserving and accidental symbol of a movement for racial justice.
According to “Made in America,” it seems, O.J. Simpson is a guilty man, and an undeserving symbol for a community of people rightly seeking long overdue justice at the hands of the law. But the question as to whether the defense’s playing of the race card in his murder trial was, at the time, forgivable, remains — for some — open-ended.
And it begs the question, too — with police violence and racism and political divisiveness a prevalent topic in current news, would the jury have sided differently, or the same, today?
Mia O’Neill is in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism Master’s program.