‘O. J.: Made in America,’ a lesson in race and injustice

NOSELL

ESPN

 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - 12:21am

1968 was one of the most consequential years in American history: Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, followed a few months later by the assassination of Robert Kennedy; North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive intensified the war in Vietnam, a war that decimated Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and popularity; at the Democratic convention in Chicago, police forces assaulted anti-Vietnam protesters; Tommie Smith and John Carlos, African-American track and field athletes, raised their fists in Black solidarity at the Olympics; and it was all capped off with the election of Richard Nixon as president of the United States.

Hiding outside the political and social upheaval — an ephemeral home, it turns out — Orenthal James Simpson, star running back at the University of Southern California, won the Heisman trophy. Now, in 2016, nearly 50 years later, he’s serving a 33-year sentence in the Lovelock Correctional Center in Lovelock, Nevada.

Who would have guessed that, in the following half-century, the life of O. J. Simpson would become more important to the American consciousness as any of these other events? A new installment of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, “O.J.: Made in America,” tracks the remarkable and unexpected coalescence of Simpson’s and America’s stories. It’s the most ambitious and striking installment in the series so far.

“O. J.: Made in America” is a five-part, nearly-eight hour epic. Under the direction of Ezra Edelman (“Requiem for the Big East”), it’s documentary filmmaking at its finest. Edelman locates many of the seeds of contemporary America and draws them through Simpson’s life, from his promising beginnings to his macabre present. Heightened racial conflict, the failures of the criminal justice system, the virulence of celebrity, domestic violence in the sporting world — we see these and many other unmistakable aspects of contemporary life in “O. J.: Made in America.” Hell, even the Kardashians are here, though, thankfully in uncharacteristically small doses. The film isn’t just a character study but a study of how America became what it is. Simpson isn’t just a man, here, but a prism into America’s past and present.

Athletic competition presents the illusion of a perfect meritocracy, and Simpson — a rare mix of speed, power and pure grace — stood at the very pinnacle of athletic accomplishment. He not only won a Heisman, but, after a few dismal years in Buffalo, where he was drafted with the first overall pick in 1969, he had what is perhaps the greatest season ever by an NFL running back. He even participated in the Olympics as a sprinter. Simpson’s post-career life, the movies and the murder, has superseded so much of his professional football career that it’s easy to forget why he was famous in the first place.

Successful athletes win not just a place in the annals of history, but in the coffers of the marketplace. O. J. Simpson was one of the first Black athletes to make his career off the field and in the mediums of advertising. His sunshine smile, perfect marketing name and willingness to sterilize his identity as a Black man — “Go, O.J., go!” the pearly white Girl Scouts cheer in his iconic Hertz commercial — made him perfect for a marketplace appealing to white upper-class consumers.

At the height of his athletic fame, Simpson was the sterling example — for better or worse — of how a Black athlete could succeed in white America. As a media star, he preceded athletes like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, but Simpson was more comfortable there than most, and maybe any. There has never been, perhaps, an athlete better fitted for advertising or film.

Simpson is all spectacle and charm. His charm is, it seems, the only talent that exceeds his athleticism. He was perfect for acting, though he wasn’t a particularly talented actor, because he knew nothing else. He was totally self-aware, always conscious of how he affects those around him, and this self-awareness allowed him to maneuver through white America by projecting himself as a man without race. Simpson adopted the guise of racial blindness, claiming that he never noticed how many Black people were in a room when he walked in — that is, until his freedom depended on how many Blacks would be on his jury. Only when race became advantageous, when being Black became essential to his preservation and prosperity, did Simpson give it his attention.

Simpson’s embrace of white America’s benefits came at the expense of the Black community. At USC, when approached by sociology professor and civil rights activist Harry Edwards to join him and other Black athletes in their fight, Simpson replied, “I’m not Black. I’m O.J.” At the same time, other Black athletes, like Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown stood up against racial discrimination. Simpson tried his best to live this dictum, but his efforts only revealed the fallacy of the idea that anyone can transcend their race.

The three middle episodes of the five-part series are the heart of the documentary and the most compelling, but the first and last provide insightful bookends for Simpson’s life and times. In the first, the film shows Simpson’s Horatio Alger story, his rise from poverty in San Francisco to USC and NFL stardom. It’s an encouraging beginning. When we arrive at part five, where Simpson spends his days with cocaine and strippers and an absurd attempt at a career as a reality TV star, it’s a morbid conclusion to a life that was once on a straightaway to glory.

Part two tracks the development of Simpson and Nicole Brown’s relationship, both the love and the violence. The film reveals the extent of Simpson’s abuse (and the failure of the LAPD to deal with it adequately), but it doesn’t quite get to the heart of his violence toward his wife. While, generally, the film is comprehensive in it’s historical analysis and synthesis, Simpson’s domestic violence isn’t quite put into context. What is the link between the beating of his wife and his status as a superstar athlete? As a rampant womanizer? How many other athletes committed similar crimes?

Parts three and four handle Simpson’s trial for the murders of his wife and Ronald Goldman. It is, of course, the main attraction, and it’ll please both those coming to it again and those coming for the first time. It’s the sort of carnivalesque stupidity that pleases with its outrageousness. It’s a spectacle that fits the man on trial. But, as much as the trial swells from moral severity into comic absurdity, the human loss remains, and the film succeeds in reviving the memory of what was lost in the murder and what was erased in the trial and its media coverage.

The whole cast of characters isn’t here — Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s most important defense attorney, died in 2005; Robert Shapiro, Simpson’s original lead attorney, and Christopher Darden, a lead prosecutor, didn’t participate — but almost everyone who matters makes an appearance. It’s remarkable, 20 years later, how much contempt remains among those involved. They speak in candor and self-service with equal weight, but the film doesn’t hope to explore his guilt or innocence. Rather, it investigates the conditions that made the trial such a strange cultural event.

Throughout the development of Simpson’s story, Edelman brings in the events that shaped America, and, most specifically, Los Angeles. He shows the 1963 Watts riots, the death of Eula Love and the on-camera beating of Rodney King — all formative in creating the Los Angeles of the ’90s. He reveals the history of conflict between the Black community and the LAPD and, moreover, how these tensions rose and fell throughout the latter half of the 20th century. If “The People vs. O. J. Simpson” revitalized the Simpson murder trial, “O. J .: Made in America” reveals the channels of the story’s vitality, the currents that flow through the contemporary world and make his fall from grace so extraordinary and so definitively American.

Simpson’s fall is, in fact, almost incomprehensible — perhaps in another country and a different time it would be — but, as Edelman realizes, it fits all too well within the context of American history. The entire project of the film is to locate the social and historical forces that make Simpson’s life a peculiarly American tragedy. As one childhood friend notes, “He always wanted to be a hero, an American hero,” Simpson could never escape his country — neither its blessings nor its condemnations. Yes, O. J. made O. J., but he couldn’t have been made anywhere else.

The grand irony of “O. J .: Made in America” is Simpson, remarkable for his apolitical, corporate correctness, found himself in the most politicized and polarizing trial of the 20th century; a Black man who succeeded as a pop culture icon by neutralizing his “Blackness” found himself a part of a case that was equal parts murder trial and referendum on race in America.

The greater irony, perhaps, is a man whose success was predicated on the eschewal of his identity as an African-American became a heroic symbol within the very community he ignored. “O. J .: Made in America” gathers these ironies and weaves them into an endlessly fascinating story of the vagaries of fame and an exposition of the historical forces that make America what it is.