By Heather Nelson
(Published June 29, 2016)
Orenthal James Simpson had that certain charm that let him get away with certain things. “Juice,” as he was known to his fans and friends, had a way about him that you don’t see today with modern athletes. O.J. Simpson was able to get away with whatever he wanted, including murder.
I watched O.J. Made in America, the 30 for 30 documentary event directed by Ezra Edelman, knowing the basics of the case. I knew about O.J. Simpson’s time with USC and about his football stardom. I knew he was accused of a double-murder and was found not guilty. I knew that O.J. was later jailed for robbery. I knew about the trial’s media craze.
I didn’t know about O.J.’s background — about how he spent his life working to be well-liked and accepted and famous. I didn’t know about the racial tensions in Los Angeles like that the police brutality had gotten out of hand. Or that the police officers who beat Rodney King to death went free. I didn’t know O.J. separated himself from the race issue. And I definitely didn’t comprehend how well-liked O.J., the football player, was — so loved that it seemed preposterous to believe he killed two people, one being his wife.
I found myself becoming slightly more enraged as the hours dragged on. I grew up in post-O.J. America. All I’d ever known about the case, or about O.J., was that most people believed (and knew) he was a murderer. Of course, my opinion of him was shaped by those around me, so I never once considered pre-trial O.J. — the O.J. that America knew well before he committed the double-murder.
The two major themes in this documentary, race and fame, encompass all that O.J. was — and wasn’t. O.J. obsessed over obtaining fame. In the opening of the documentary he said, “As a kid growing up in the ghetto, one of the things I wanted most was not money, it was fame. I wanted to be known. I wanted people to say, ‘Hey, there goes O.J.’”
Director Edelman spends plenty of time revealing O.J. the star: O.J. at USC, O.J. with the Buffalo Bills, O.J.’s partnership with Hertz. I started to believe in his charm, to understand the man that America loved so much. White America loved him because he separated himself from race. But, like many African Americans, I take issue with his stance which was selfish and careless about paving the way for others who would follow him.
If you didn’t already know, O.J. didn’t fit in with the rest of black America. He didn’t weigh in on the racial issues of the time (Los Angeles was the center for racial inequality during O.J.’s college years and beyond as there were major riots and, notably, Rodney King’s wrongful death on the hands of the LAPD). While the Black Panther Party and athletes like Muhammad Ali brought race to the forefront, O.J. served as the counter-revolutionary athlete. O.J. made people feel good, and he made people forget about the more serious issues plaguing the country. It doesn’t seem too hard to comprehend why he was welcomed by white society. He wasn’t slamming harsh truths in their faces or calling for racial equality. O.J. Simpson’s selfish ambitions made him what he was — an icon.
Enter Nicole Brown. O.J. claimed Nicole as his the very first time he met her. He bought her a house and a car. It wasn’t long before O.J. made Nicole forever his through matrimony. According to the documentary, O.J. felt entitled to anything he wanted, and I don’t doubt that Nicole was another of O.J.’s possessions. O.J. told Nicole how to be, where to be, and he never gave up his control over her. It was obvious he was jealous. Nicole’s murder was preceded by numerous domestic violence calls to 911 and logs of her abuse written in a private journal. But, O.J. loved Nicole, so he’d never hurt her, right?
Everything that followed the deaths of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson was pure chaos. The Bronco chase. The media craze — cameras allowed in the courtroom. (WHAT?) The legal teams. Black America ready to defend Simpson. The gloves. The DNA evidence. Johnnie Cochran. The deliberation. It all culminated to O.J.’s acquittal.
That was payback for Rodney King.
The interviews with the jurors (and with O.J.’s former agent) were most telling. It’s clear to me, now, how O.J. was set free. The jurors, who were presented some telling evidence (before OJ tried the gloves on), decided to make a statement. Blacks would not go unnoticed or suffer injustices again. By letting O.J., a black man go free, it gave hope to the many African Americans who had been accused of a crime. It didn’t matter if O.J. committed the murders — to blacks, it mattered that he walked free and was given a second chance to live his life.
Now, O.J. Simpson sits in jail for robbery. All the witnesses testified against him, and maybe everything about that case wasn’t fair. But should O.J. really complain about fairness?
O.J. Made in America left me thinking. Has our country progressed as far as we think it has? Or is race still a big issue, especially in the justice system? Are there racial (and other) inequalities still existing in America? How do we fix them? How do sports serve as a means to speak on (or not speak on) these issues? It feels like this same struggle continues today. It’s déjà vu. And I’m not sure how to fix it.
To watch all parts of the documentary, click here.