Race, celebrity and power in ‘OJ: Made in America’
The documentary is a powerful examination of the OJ Simpson trial within the context of race relations in the US
OJ Simpson became famous because he could get away. As a child he suffered from rickets and wore braces on his legs; as a young man he set a National Football League record by rushing 2000 yards on the field in a single season. Ezra Edelman’s seven-and-a-half-hour, Academy Award–winning documentary OJ: Made in America – recently broadcast on NITV and available for streaming at SBS On Demand in five episodes – begins with plenty of footage of Simpson in his athletic heyday, first as a running back for the University of Southern California and then as a professional player with the Buffalo Bills. It’s extraordinary to watch him. Simpson moved with a balletic grace that belied his six-foot footballer’s frame; in the memorable words of one observer, he ran through other players “like foreign water through a tourist”.
By the mid 1970s Simpson was probably the most famous, and certainly the most adored, living sports star in America. He was also one of the first athletes to parlay his sporting prowess into lucrative sponsorship deals. For a black man raised in the housing projects of San Francisco to become the face of Chevrolet and of Hertz rental cars was no small feat, and it seemed proof – to Simpson, as much as to the rest of America – of his exceptionalism. He was the one who could speed past the barriers of race and class that held other people back. In 1965, two years before Simpson began making his name at USC, a historically white campus, streets away the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Watts, historically black, went up in flames, as people rioted in response to police brutality. But Simpson always strove to put clear distance between himself and the upheavals of his times. “I’m not black, I’m OJ,” he is reported to have said, a statement at once confounding and comprehensible, because he was OJ, and there was no one else like him.
The first episode of Edelman’s documentary concentrates on Simpson’s rarity as a black American whose skills, charisma and success took him to the heart of affluent, white Los Angeles, while the second episode lays bare the sordid, sorry history of that city’s police department and its treatment of black citizens. Decades of police violence would culminate, infamously, in the 1991 beating of unarmed black motorist Rodney King by several LAPD officers. But not even video evidence of that incident – filmed by a witness – would be enough to secure the criminal conviction of the officers involved, and once again, in response, Los Angeles would burn.
At this point, three hours into Edelman’s film, a viewer might wonder what all this historic detail, compelling as it is, has to do with the turn of events that we know is coming. But the director’s panoramic approach to his subject – for he has gathered together a vast array of resources, including interviews with more than 70 people – pays off in the remaining episodes, when we see how the histories of the Civil Rights movement, the LAPD, and Simpson’s own life would converge in his 1994 arrest for murder, and the subsequent trial. It is very likely that on 12 June 1994, Simpson stabbed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, to death. Brown’s throat was cut so violently that her head was nearly severed from her body. The killer walked away, leaving bloody footprints in their wake, and all of the evidence – including a long, documented history of spousal battery and abuse – pointed towards Simpson. But after an 11-month criminal trial he was found not guilty of murder, and thousands of people cheered that verdict in the streets.
If the murder trial of OJ Simpson were a fiction, you would accuse its author of plot twists beyond the bounds of credibility. And in a sense it was a fiction, a worldwide media spectacle in which the ugly reality of murder was subsumed by an unreal extravaganza of fame and scandal. Simpson’s defence, lead by Civil Rights advocate and lawyer-to-the-stars Johnnie Cochran, became known as the “Dream Team”, as if they were a sports squad. They knew exactly how to exploit every weakness in the opposition, including the LAPD’s record of racism and incompetence. The trial was televised live, “gavel to gavel”, and everybody watching had their opinion as to the truth, but those truths differed. By the conclusion of the trial around 70% of white Americans believed that Simpson was guilty, while a corresponding number of black Americans thought that he was innocent. What is remarkable about this film is that makes us understand both viewpoints: it seems so obvious that Simpson was guilty, but it was also obvious to black Americans that the criminal justice system was weighted against them, and that plenty of guilty white people had evaded punishment, too. One trial juror interviewed here describes Simpson’s acquittal by a majority-black jury as payback, and her sentiment is echoed by several black community leaders. It was payback for the Rodney King case, payback “for what has happened over the past 400 years”.
But if this was so, it was to prove a hollow victory. For nowadays a majority of Americans, of all backgrounds, believe that Simpson committed those two murders, though he has never confessed to them. And in 2008, 13 years to the day after his acquittal for murder, Simpson was sentenced to 33 years in a Nevada prison for kidnap and armed robbery, following a botched attempt to seize back personal property that was being auctioned off by dealers. It’s a wretched epilogue to a long narrative of ruin, because the sentence was plainly excessive, and one injustice does not amend for the other.
OJ: Made in America is grim but necessary viewing. It will stand alongside the similarly epic Hoop Dreams (1994) as a documentary that, with sport as its ostensible subject, also serves as an examination of race in America, and of fame’s perverse and distorting effects. The obsessive media coverage of celebrity, the bitter divide of public opinion, even the cameo appearances by members of the Kardashian family: none of these phenomena are new, and all remain current. And amongst it, though almost obscured, is an abused woman who ended up dead, and whose murder no one has ever answered for. The contempt for women’s lives and their agency, and the immunity of powerful men from the consequences of their violence – yes, that feels familiar, too.