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The Case of O.J. Simpson

O.J.: Made in America

a five-part ESPN documentary directed by Ezra Edelman
O.J. Simpson with his first wife, Marguerite Whitley, Amherst, New York, 1973; from Ezra Edelman’s documentary O.J.: Made in America
Mickey Osterreicher/ESPN Films
O.J. Simpson with his first wife, Marguerite Whitley, Amherst, New York, 1973; from Ezra Edelman’s documentary O.J.: Made in America

Martin Luther King and others have said that Sunday in America is the most segregated day of the week, but the O.J. Simpson verdict, acquittal on all charges, came in on a Tuesday. The jury, after having been sequestered for the better part of a year, took only three hours to deliberate. It knew enough and now wanted to go home. Leaning into the jury box, Simpson’s defense attorney Johnny Cochran had closed with a rousing speech that the verdict would be not just about Simpson but would be a vote for racial justice generally. Are you, members of the jury, with the Brothers or with the Man?—as coprosecutor Christopher Darden described it ahead of time in an objection to the defense strategy. Unknown to a lot of the white world, this idea of voting for something larger than O.J. was felt in many places, not just at the lawyers’ tables.

When the 1995 verdict was announced it was a sunny October morning in LA. Members of the LAPD had come on horseback to the front of the courthouse, in case there were riots. People at work and at home were glued to the broadcast. I myself was standing in front of my television set while my baby napped upstairs, snoozing through his last full year of racial blindness, a condition Simpson quixotically believed in and sought for much of his adult life. “I’m not black; I’m O.J.,” he repeatedly said, though racial community and fellow feeling would come to his rescue in the end.

Even in the Bronco “chase”—a minimalist newsreel thriller à la Andy Warhol—those who had thought of Simpson as “white” joked bleakly that now that he had cop cars following him he had become black again. (A similar line is uttered by a neighbor over the fictional rendition of Christopher Darden’s fence in the exposition-jammed dialogue of The People v. O.J. Simpson, the docudrama that garnered five Emmys and disconcertingly serves up the case as entertainment and courtroom soap opera.) Young people had cheered on the Bronco from highway overpasses.

On the day of the verdict, stock trading dwindled. Water usage dropped. So much work stopped that it was estimated that there was “480 million dollars in lost productivity.” Such nationwide attention and suspense suggested that at least some part of the public was alert to this verdict as a species of referendum. Could an African-American man with money get the same breaks that white men with money did? Simpson was a prize to be competed for.

Black Americans erupted in jubilation at the news of Simpson’s freedom. Crowds hugged in the streets, and the cheering outside the Los Angeles Superior Court startled the LAPD’s horses, which reared back and then were trotted away. In the wake of so many acquittals for the killing and maiming of black Angelenos—Eulia Love, Latasha Harlins, Rodney King—here was one for the other side. In the courtroom one of the jurors thrust his fist in the air in black power solidarity. He was an upstanding citizen but also a former Black Panther—something missed by the prosecution during voir dire.

White Americans were by and large vexed and perplexed. Jeffrey Toobin, who covered the case for The New Yorker, exclaimed a little cluelessly about the verdict, “I actually thought I might pass out from shock.” Seventy-seven percent of whites believed that Simpson was guilty; 72 percent of blacks believed him not guilty. Rather than closing the gap, the trial increased these percentages by roughly ten points from what they had been pre-trial, widening the racial divide in opinion and perception. Whites and blacks had watched the same trial and seen very different things; their responses to the acquittal took place in separate worlds. “Black people too happy, white people too mad,” observed the comedian Chris Rock about the reactions. “I haven’t seen white people that mad since they canceled M.A.S.H.”

At the time I had only one white friend who believed completely in Simpson’s innocence, i.e., that despite a trail of blood from the crime scene to the Simpson home, he was utterly framed, from beginning to end, not just the victim of perjury and illegally enhanced evidence. This friend has also been known to argue that the Apollo moon landing was an elaborately staged hoax prompted by the cold war, a belief held by 60 percent of Russians to this day. In a minor coincidence, O.J. Simpson was in a movie, Capricorn One, also about a fake space landing; in so many parts of his Los Angeles life, reality was ostensible, continually represented as something up for grabs.

Most other friends of mine, black and white, shared with me the view that despite the amount of incriminating evidence, the LAPD—primarily in the form of the bigoted police detective Mark Fuhrman—had planted and mishandled some of it and lied on the stand and that the case in the courtroom was tainted and so not necessarily proven beyond a reasonable doubt. There was, furthermore, no murder weapon with fingerprints. There was no witness. DNA expert Barry Scheck had poked holes in the forensic science he himself had helped develop. If a man with Simpson’s celebrity and money could not stand up successfully against the judicial system with that system’s habit of casual fudgings, then no black man could. Simpson was the most famous man to stand trial for murder, let alone the most famous black man.

But when I spoke at dinner about it with a well-known (white) film director who believed completely in Simpson’s guilt, and I said offhandedly that I found the logistics puzzling: I could not understand how one person acting alone could have murdered two people like that—so quietly yet brutally, with children asleep upstairs—he looked aghast. “Really? You don’t?” he said. And then he stood up next to the dinner table and enacted it with a samurai’s choreography and an invisible weapon that seemed to be a double-edged sword (well, what isn’t). Watching the director move so assuredly, if somewhat indecipherably, convinced me that he was in the right line of work. But his invisible murder weapon—like the murder weapon that failed ever to make an appearance at the trial—could have used some assistance from a prop department. (The FX docudrama, which leans heavily on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: the People v. O.J. Simpson, suggests in passing that Simpson may have learned some knife techniques from a film he was rehearsing about Navy Seals.)

The Simpson trial kept people talking for years. It was a touchstone of race, class, and gender tensions. If not the trial of the century, as it was rather dramatically called, it was certainly the trial of the Nineties. And lest Americans have forgotten, or weren’t born yet, or have had their young imaginations muddled by the docudrama—which is replete with the Kardashian girls, plus John Travolta and Nathan Lane doing camp versions of Robert Shapiro and F. Lee Bailey (though strong, deep performances are elicited from the actors playing Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, and Johnny Cochran)—a new, sober, and intelligent documentary, produced and directed by Ezra Edelman, the Emmy-winning son of the activist Marian Wright Edelman, has emerged from the unlikely source of ESPN to look closely at Simpson’s entire life and times and to see him as the complicated construction that he is. It is titled: O.J.: Made in America.

Many of the books, articles, and films on O.J. Simpson over the years have been aptly titled or subtitled, in Dreiserean fashion, An American Tragedy. When one looks at tragedies one is not looking so much at the protagonist’s pure or lusty and always unlucky victims. The story—its meaning and complexity—lies with the perpetrator: Othello, Don José, Canio’s Pagliaccio in Pagliacci; only the doomed Carmen gets the title of the opera she is in. And Simpson’s story is an opera—a heartbreaking drama that will always be titled “O.J.,” not “Nicole and Ron.” The tragic hero is one who is in some way exceptional but (as in the above-named tenor roles) is gripped by a fatal flaw that is often jealousy compounded by dislocation. There may be issues of authenticity or fame-induced imposter-syndrome or some other variety of exile. Some fault line in society runs through him as well. His strived-for success feels hollow. He is spiritually homeless, humiliated by his lover and maybe also by his work if the fun part is over (Don José), or if he hopes to rest on laurels (Othello), or if his job is tawdry show business of some sort (Canio/Pagliaccio). Perhaps as part of the story there are themes of race and class or a narrative of comeuppance. All these elements figure into Simpson’s epic fall. After divorcing his high school sweetheart, he married the beautiful eighteen-year-old waitress whom he’d met in a restaurant, and when she turned out not to be the perfect wife for an aging, womanizing man—she retaliated with infidelities of her own—he began to terrorize and hit her.

Edelman’s documentary, like the FX docudrama, shows the Rodney King beating right at the start (in the documentary it is shown at the start of each of the five episodes in an opening credit montage of public moments that figure in Simpson’s fate and is then explored more fully in episode 2). In our current time, when some of the most shocking police brutality has emerged for public viewing, one might imagine that the King beating would seem familiar. Yet quite the opposite is true: the footage of it still shocks viscerally to this day. Its pointlessness and sadism resemble a lynching. At that time there were no body cams or cell phones and the LAPD had no idea they were being observed; it was at night and the amount of time given over to the violence is grotesquely leisurely and unperturbed. The black community always knew such things occurred, but when the film evidence emerged, at long last there was proof for the courtroom.

Less than two weeks later there was surveillance footage of a grocer shooting black teenager Latasha Harlins in the back of the head. At a time when a conviction for crack possession got black people decades in prison, that the grocer in the Harlins murder served no prison time and the Los Angeles cops in the King beating were acquitted of state charges led naturally to community outrage and unfortunately to fiery riots that did nothing to bandage wounds anywhere. When an unarmed black man is killed with impunity by police designated to protect and serve, setting the occasional empty car on fire may seem a natural if desperate response to years of underlying tensions. But whole black neighborhoods going up in flames in Los Angeles reduced poor Rodney King himself to saying, “Can’t we all just get along?”—a question whose answer had already been uttered.

Daryl Gates, the head of the LAPD at the time, was famous for weaponizing his police force. He defended chokeholds. He introduced SWAT teams and snipers, a move that was imitated in some other urban police departments, often to disastrous effect (as shown in the Utah community of the 2015 Scott Christopherson–Brad Barber documentary Peace Officer). Edelman’s documentary focuses minimally on Gates, but does manage an extended interview with Mark Fuhrman, the police detective who lied during the Simpson trial regarding his own personal history of racism and racist epithets, and who eventually lawyered up and pleaded the Fifth, even to the question Did you plant evidence? The prosecution’s loss was less about the glove found at Simpson’s house (which sort of did fit and clearly belonged to Simpson) than about the Fifth Amendment. Also, the forensics team confessed on the stand to taking the blood of the accused from the lab back to the crime scene, admitting it was an unusual thing to do. Though maybe it wasn’t. In any case, the prosecution’s trail-of-blood case was no longer a slam dunk.

Given the several causes for reasonable doubt, after 267 sequestered days, hovered over by guards and given the occasional conjugal visit, the jury felt entitled to take only three hours to deliberate. Since they had already been present for the entire trial, they believed they’d had more than enough time for a decision. Nonetheless the jurors were slandered and reviled for doing so, and continue to be even to this day.

O.J. Simpson, his ex-wife Nicole Brown, and their children, Sydney and Justin, at the premiere of Simpson’s film Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, Los Angeles, March 1994
Fred Prouser/Reuters
O.J. Simpson, his ex-wife Nicole Brown, and their children, Sydney and Justin, at the premiere of Simpson’s film Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, Los Angeles, March 1994

Edelman’s documentary brilliantly portrays the social backdrop to race in Los Angeles at that time, a police culture of officially sanctioned excessive force, leading to several shattering events: the Watts riots, the police killing of Eulia Love in front of her home in 1979, and eventually Rodney King in 1991. In LA from 1940 to 1960 the African-American population had grown by 600 percent, many people fleeing Louisiana and Texas only to face racism as stark as that of the Jim Crow South. “We didn’t ask these people to come here,” says Bill Parker, who preceded Gates and was head of the LAPD during the Watts riots. Parker himself was raised in Deadwood, South Dakota, and although he cleaned up the internal corruption on the force, he also turned it into a quasi-military presence, a pernicious, occupying army in black neighborhoods. Reputedly he recruited cops from the KKK.

The Simpson family had come to California from a Louisiana farm, and Orenthal James was born and grew up in the San Francisco projects. His father became a drag queen and left the family, dying of AIDS in 1985. The documentary leaves viewers to imagine on their own how a black gay father at that time might have affected a son caught up in the stultifying hypermasculinity of sports. It surely bound Simpson to his mother, who appears in Edelman’s film as a sweet, pretty, religious woman, wheeled mutely in and out of her son’s long criminal trial.

Though Edelman’s film is not about Nicole Brown, she is seen as the great beauty everyone upon meeting her instantly declared her to be. We see her lovely in her wedding dress, basking in the sun with her young child, playing basketball by the pool with her husband’s friends, who adored her. We see her sexy modeling shots. In fact beauty is very much a theme in this narrative: both Simpson and Brown were so good-looking that no actors could convincingly play them (in the docudrama The People v. O.J., Cuba Gooding is miscast as O.J., and Brown is given no written part at all; she is seen only once as a blurry, blonde corpse foregrounded at her own funeral). In a film industry full of beautiful people, the casting problem is usually the opposite—the actors are too attractive for the people they are playing. A documentary, using actual footage of all involved, does not have this problem. In Edelman’s case he can also use, and does, home movies and photographs of both victims, so that an honoring trace of their presence persists. But he does not linger there; his story is not about them.

If a hero embodies the unspoken virtues and vitality of a society, the tragic hero, beneath an admirable veneer, flecked with the marks of youthful struggle overcome, also embodies a society’s secret illnesses. Simpson suffered from many things having to do with American success and celebrity and rags-to-riches financial swings, including disconnect from the black community. He also suffered from rickets as a child and severe arthritis as an adult; his beauty when young fed into both insecurity about its loss and sexual entitlement, which fueled jealousy, rage, and narcissism. More contemporary pathological categories might include borderline personality disorder and concussive head trauma (CTE) from playing football, but speculative medicalizing diminishes the story’s power.

Edelman’s documentary would like implicitly to link Simpson’s troubles to the culture of sports, though it also compares him unfavorably to Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jim Brown, other athletes who were aligned with the civil rights movement and were “race men,” which Simpson never was nor aspired to be. He was an ambitious party boy from a party school—USC in 1967 was pretty much beyond the reach of the black community—and after his subsequent professional running back days were over, Simpson was both driven and anxious about money. As his movie career went through its vagaries, he strove to be a successful businessman. He served on corporate boards and did endorsements for rental cars and honey-baked hams, though what he really wanted, a little unrealistically, was to be head of a movie studio. According to the documentary, he was supporting his in-laws.

For many years he was wealthy, famous, and handsome in a land—Los Angeles—that prized such things even more than elsewhere. He loved Hollywood and felt, foolishly—perhaps like Michael Jackson, whom Johnny Cochran also once represented—that he had transcended race. He seemed to feel that lavish materialism would express his accomplishment, that it would signify his success as a black man, that it would speak for itself. He was counterrevolutionary.

The documentary handles the trial itself in efficient ways. Interviews with the present-day Mark Fuhrman and the now almost unrecognizable Marcia Clark are perhaps the most interesting, although throughout managing defense attorney Carl Douglas has some of the most memorable remarks. Of Robert Shapiro, he says, “He was not known as a trial dog with two g’s.” Of Cochran: “Johnny was always that stalwart defender of justice fighting against the Bastille.” Of the strong and unusual diversity of the jury: “O.J. turned and said, ‘Guys, if this jury convicts me, maybe I did do it.’” The verdict was not inexplicable, as much as it might have seemed so to white people watching the trial from their living rooms. The prosecutors, according to Marcia Clark, felt they had lost the case by the time Fuhrman invoked the Fifth. Though Clark closed her case by emphasizing the domestic abuse, hoping to appeal to the women jurors, domestic abuse was not the crime Simpson was being charged with.

Edelman shows Clark cursing out paparazzi in front of her home when she is called back into the courthouse for the verdict; it’s clear she knows she has lost. As for the vulnerable and complex Christopher Darden, who initiated O.J.’s trying on of the glove (which prompted Cochran’s triumphant rhyme, “If it does not fit, you must acquit”), he refused to be included in the film, a loss for Edelman, who also did not have Cochran or Robert Kardashian, both now dead, nor Judge Lance Ito, who despite inviting Larry King into his chambers has since rebuffed all publicity. This past spring, however, a somewhat charming and middle-aged Chris Darden did go on The View and on The Today Show (where, among other things, he defended his decision to have Simpson try on the glove and did not deny having been romantically involved with Marcia Clark during the case).

Edelman negotiates the legal turns of the trial (most involving blood evidence and its contamination) without getting too bogged down with courtroom psychodrama and the media frenzy that attached to all the participants. The falling out of Shapiro and Cochran at the end is little more than too many bigwigs at the table but provides an interesting coda. Cochran’s “playing the race card” included “playing the Nazi card,” and he was not above invoking Hitler when speaking of Fuhrman’s racist views. It is an example of “Godwin’s Law” or “Reductio ad Hitlerum” and was an unnecessary move on Cochran’s part—the first person to say “Nazi” loses the argument, my own students like to say—but Cochran did not lose, and Shapiro’s peeling-away and grandstanding after the verdict, holding solo press conferences in which he criticized Cochran and Bailey, were merely self-serving.

But O.J.: Made in America continues well past the trial. It follows Simpson as he tries to salvage his life despite having become a social pariah in Brentwood. It shows him before he finally leaves for Florida to protect his assets, after losing the civil suit brought by the Goldmans and Browns. Simpson is shown making faked footage—reluctantly packing up, pulling out of the driveway, telling the cameraman to go, waving him away—in order to sell these films to tabloids. The civil suit had assessed the damages at $33 million and he had no other way to make money.

The years in Florida are squalid and surreal. Celia Farber, an Esquire journalist who interviewed Simpson at the time, said she began to feel “sorry for him…I kept feeling he was a victim.” The level and scope of negative feeling toward him, his banishment from practically everything, she felt had a component of racism in it. But knocked off all his pedestals, instead of doing good works, Simpson escaped into strip clubs and unsavory parties. Although the black church reached out to help him, and he had read the Bible and the Koran in jail, he did not get religion. He took up golfing with a new social set much lower down the ladder than those he had golfed with in Brentwood.

The documentary takes us through the final extraordinary sentencing of Simpson in 2010 for an absurdly small crime—a chapter the public may not have paid much attention to. Because Simpson had lost all his corporate contracts, he was making money through the signing of memorabilia. (This is how he paid his lawyers during the trial as well: signing footballs and T-shirts in jail.) In the strange mishandling of his personal property after the civil case against him, much personal memorabilia, such as his Heisman trophy, never intended for sale, went missing. To retrieve some of these possessions, Simpson hatched a plan with some dicey new Florida pals. It was less like a crime and more like a caper out of a movie. They would find the shady memorabilia salesman in a Las Vegas hotel room and confront him.

Because two of his friends were carrying guns, it was called “armed robbery.” Because Simpson said upon entering that nobody was to leave the room, it was called “attempted kidnapping.” When Simpson pleads with the court that he didn’t know he was committing a crime, one is inclined to believe him. But the Nevada judge, clearly not liking the outcome of Simpson’s previous criminal trial, and making a kind of end run around the double-jeopardy clause in the Constitution, sentenced Simpson to over thirty-three years (with parole after seven). The number was thought to mirror the $33 million awarded in the civil suit, and the day of the sentencing was the anniversary of the murder charge acquittal. Ron Goldman’s father, Fred, was in the Las Vegas courtroom doggedly looking for justice and solace. Fred Goldman’s long bitter vigil and enthusiasm for the Nevada court’s over-the-top conviction could not possibly assuage his sorrow. One cannot judge such grief. Though one can compare it, if one dares, to the extravagantly and unsettlingly ready public forgiveness of Dylann Roof by the families of the victims of the Charleston AME church shooting in 2015. Amazing grace indeed, as Obama noted.

Edelman’s documentary shows O.J. now in prison looking gray and overweight while trying to put the best spin on things—his coaching of the prison teams, for instance. When the murder trial is brought up by the parole reviewers, Simpson looks crestfallen. He wants to be rehabilitated in the public mind and the question serves as a reminder that this will never happen. How did this life go so awry? The documentary veers simultaneously toward and away from the question, probably since at the heart of most individual madness there is a kind of mystery, although the sociological threads—sports, race, criminal justice, domestic violence, celebrity, sex, hedonism—are all named and explored. The film is excellent at putting what it can in its cultural context.

What the film does especially eye-openingly is look at the much-maligned jury and interview two rather sympathetic members. (Further deliberation—something that was expected—might have left the public with a hung jury, a mistrial at best.) Even if there hadn’t been perjury, mishandled evidence, and general and specific reasonable doubt, if one is a juror and perceives there is a kind of war that involves race, one may feel oneself drafted as a soldier and choose sides. War—which includes battle cries, uniforms, songs, artillery, recruits, and often dishonest, obscuring vocabulary (“engagement”!)—is the fog itself.

The documentary suggests that the jurors felt themselves invited into it, called upon to take care of one of their own, and by the end were battle-weary but not AWOL. In a place where deference to police had been built into the legal system, aggravating racial tensions for decades, this jury would fight back. Did the prison system need one more black man? Did it require this particular black man? The crucial police detective on the crime scene had pleaded the Fifth multiple times to questions regarding evidence tampering; the prosecution’s case had a large wobble in it; how was a conviction possible?

The jurors, for the most part black women from downtown LA, clearly felt closer to Rodney King than to the white model who had married an admired sports hero. Redemption for one of their own sweetened the technical correctness of the verdict. Nonetheless, with unveiled scorn, coprosecutor Bill Hodgman looks into Edelman’s camera and calls the jury “unfit,” “a bad lot,” a product of “reverse social Darwinism.”

How curious but inevitable that our artists and comedians are more fearless in their opinions (than, say, our politicians) when it comes to the matter of black lives mattering; in speaking of police culture, after this summer’s tragic Dallas shooting of three cops, Bill Maher has said, “You cannot shoot unarmed people continually without someone shooting back.” When two weeks later a black therapist was shot as he lay with his hands raised in a Florida street next to an autistic patient, the still-living therapist asked the cop why he had shot him, and the cop replied, “I don’t know.”

Because he could. Because deep down he believed he was worth more than the black man in the street. Because our country being awash in guns more than any other country in the world (Yemen is second) makes many policemen trigger-happy. Because frightened cops make for frightened citizens. Because it feels like a war. “People keep saying, ‘We need to have a conversation about race,’” Toni Morrison told The Telegraph. “This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back.”

On the subject of O.J., Chris Rock is even edgier. His routine on this topic mentions the $25,000-a-month alimony Simpson was paying his estranged wife when he “hadn’t made a touchdown in twenty years.” Violence during divorce is statistically notorious; almost everyone going through a family breakup is for a time half-crazy, and sometimes it shows up on the legal dockets, as Rock himself comprehends. Ron Goldman was Nicole’s boyfriend, Rock shouts, and was known to drive around LA in the Ferrari that O.J. had bought for her. “I don’t even own a Ferrari. But if I saw someone driving my Pinto, that shit would blow up like The Godfather.” Rock pauses with his comic’s wicked grin. “I’m not saying he should have killed her, but I understand.” Prideful rage, as Rock insists, is the story.

But the story’s outcome rests on a civil right of innocence until guilt is “proven” in a trial by jury. And with Cochran leading the way, the jurors surely had the same fact pressing on them as they came to their conclusions and did their work: the stressful, repeated grinding-down of the black man in America—his rights, his image, his identity, his safety, his employment, his finances, his health, his sanity, his dignity, his liberty, his spirit. When we look around at our country and its institutions—as Edelman’s documentary asks us to—we can see so much that is sacrificially tainted with this particular human casualty.

As a result, in the operatic Simpson tragedy (which includes loving “not wisely” but also not too well) we can see a hinge to another love story: that of O.J. and his Angeleno jurors—people identified by number rather than name and whose subsequent condemnation and ostracization mirrored his own. Race trumped gender and class. As Edelman tells it, Simpson’s story is intricately entwined with the jury’s, like the rose and briar vines sprung from doomed lovers in old ballads. The agonist-antagonist-protagonist was saved by a Greek chorus of his peers. Saved somewhat. Saved sort of. Saved slightly.