Filmed in five parts the O.J.: Made in America documentary mini-series is a monumental focus on race; celebrity; black identity and murder. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s 89th Academy awards (Oscars) the series premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2016, saw a limited cinema release in New York & LA during that summer and then aired on TV in America on ESPN, in June of the same year. We’ve yet to get a UK release but TBB were lucky enough to be invited by The Academy to a private screening.
From a British perspective, and taking into account my age. What I knew of O.J. Simpson pre-murder trial? I didn’t. Growing up, I loved the Naked Gun cult police comedy film franchise starring Leslie Nielsen as dimwit Detective Frank Derbin who led a cast of cameos from popular eighties celebrities including Simpson. I’m not sure if I knew who Simpson was in his role as Derbin’s calamitous colleague Nordberg. But seeing the clip of him in his slapstick role, he made me laugh nostalgically. This is the actor I vaguely knew. I didn’t really know the superhero sportsman accused of murdering his white, blonde ex-wife and her good friend.
Editing unseen and world renowned footage into 7.5 hours was no mean feat. Sitting through the whole thing back to back with only 3 breaks was an even bigger commitment. Tired as I was, I had to watch it. Tired as I was, I didn’t fall asleep once. The power of this documentary lies in its thorough exploration of the America which made Simpson the man he is today. I kept thinking as the story played out, if the background of every murderer; domestic abuser; criminal was given the documentary treatment and shown to juries would sentences be more considered, empathetic or harsher? Because all the components of what make up Simpson, make it understandable NOT excusable why he became an accused murderer.
The five parts of O.J. Made in America are loosely based on the game time divisions of an American football match. The four quarters being the game – life. The fifth being the traditional after game party or in some cases fights – last chance to celebrate/make things right. Detailing his life from where at aged 17 Simpson has overcome the typical life of your average black boy growing up in a poverty stricken part of San Francisco America. Broken home, gang life, a small stint at a youth guidance facility to then become the handsome, running back superstar for the University of Southern California, as part of their football team the USC Trojans. USC – being a mostly white college which bred/breeds quite a lot of LA’s powerful movers and shakers in the arts, politics and media. It’s pertinent to note that during the 1st quarter Simpson marries African American Marguerite Whitley.
It’s the detailing of the first two quarters of Simpson’s life where this documentary excels. Simply because it gives proper insight into the decisions Simpson made in order to survive as a black man in America. He’s born in the 40s when Jim Crow segregation laws were in full effect; his family was part of the post Second World War south to north migration of black folks hoping to find restitution in the north only to be met by the same racist oppression they were trying to escape in the South. He’s a teenager during the 60s, living in an area where his black brothers and sisters are being beaten and harassed by the infamous Los Angeles Police Department.
For context – we have the 1962 Mississippi University ‘Ole Miss’ Riots where protesters turned violent at the sight of African American student James Meredith attempting to enter the all white campus. The June 12, 1963 racist murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers; the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing which killed four little black girls September 15, 1963 and at the time the failure to convict the known KKK members who committed the act; the murder of three voting-rights activists in Mississippi in 1964 and the failure to convict their murderers; The attack on March 7, 1965, by county and state troopers on peaceful Alabama marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge en route from Selma, protesting unfair voting laws. The August 11, 1965, LAPD arrest of Marquette Frye which incited the 6 day Watts Riots; Anti-miscegenation laws being challenged, yet upheld until the Loving vs. Virginia case in 1967. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968… and more.
In contrast, Simpson is enjoying a life of sporting superstardom afforded him by privileged white people. It’s at this point Simpson makes the decision to not follow Muhammad Ali, who, in 1967 gathered other prominent black sportsmen to the ‘Ali Summit’ to protest the Vietnam War. Where many showed up and supported, Simpson turned Ali down. He also avoided comment or support for athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos who raised their black gloved fists during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. His choice for survival was to make it the ‘right’ way. By not risking it all for black politics. Be the good negro. Be the affable negro. Be the non-threatening negro. To supercede blackness – “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” In 1968 he was awarded the highly coveted Heisman Memorial Trophy for great sportsmanship, this metaphorically symbolised Simpson’s first major award for being a good negro. Another quotable in the documentary from Simpson, is when a friend recalls Simpson remembering the time a white woman sees him in a bar with some black people and exclaims (paraphrased) “Hey what’s O.J. doing with all these niggers”. The friend expecting Simpson to be offended, recalled that rather, Simpson was happy the woman had separated him from the negroes.
Simpson made white America feel better. They used Simpson as a poster child for racial equality. With all his business endorsements he became colourless. He portrayed success and didn’t burden whites with having to feel guilty about what was really happening. But in that, Simpson was isolated. For example he was hired by Hertz car hire company to be their spokesperson / celebrity endorser. The advert showed Simpson running through LAX airport. But whilst running through that airport he encountered not one black person. They erased his blackness. He wasn’t too dark-skinned, he had almost European features. Yet, even with this rejection of blackness Simpson still became a black role model because he was able to break through into the upper echelons of whiteness. He provided the hope and the dream. He behaved well and was rewarded with money and acceptance. It was also around this time that Simpson discovered his dad was gay but it wasn’t something further explored in the documentary apart from an instance where he beat up Nicole for allowing a gay man to kiss their young son on the cheek.
The third quarter is where Simpson meets 18 year old, white, blonde Nicole Brown who’s working as a waitress in a popular LA nightclub. Simpson said upon seeing her, that he was going to marry her. At this point his marriage to Marguerite was deteriorating due to him never being at home, and his womanising; they also lose their youngest daughter in a fatal pool accident. Eventually they divorce and Simpson marries Nicole. Together they have two children.
Again political and racial tension was high during the 80s through to the 90s. Specifically the appointment of Darryl Gates as head of the LAPD in 1978; his command style negatively affecting already sensitive relations between the black community and the police; the 1979 murder of Eulia Love at the hands of the LAPD; the 1987 introduction of Gates’ Operation Hammer an aggressive form of police sweeping of South Los Angeles for suspects, which became a topic of heated discussion when in 1988 LAPD officers raided apartment buildings on the corner of 39th Street and Dalton Avenue, looking for drugs, causing colossal destruction to homes including broken walls, sprayed graffiti and the humiliation and beating of its residents. Then you have the March 3rd 1991 videotape release of the brutal LAPD police beating of Rodney King and then 13 days later the footage of the murder of 15 year old Latasha Harlins at the hands of Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du. In both instances the acquittal of the four policemen involved in the King beating, and 5 years probation, 400 hours of community service no jail time issued to Mrs Du by judge Joyce Karlin for the murder of Latasha, incited the 1992 LA Riots.
Yet here again, where you had groups like NWA rapping about police brutality and other black celebrities speaking against racial injustices, Simpson reinforces his hear no white evil, see no white evil, will refuse to speak on white evil, forcefield. He lives in Brentwood an expensive mostly white part of LA, he’s loved in Hollywood, he has his beautiful white blonde wife, mother of his beautiful mixed-race children. He has rich white friends; his black friends are just like him, rich, black, married to white women and above blackness. He’s loved by everyone. The criticism that he’s a coon and Uncle Tom from the black community doesn’t appear to bother him because everybody in white American loves him. He’s the only black invited to the secret white clubs and he believes he’s winning.
What further cemented his delusion of black grandeur is that during his marriage to Nicole, he was repeatedly beating her. It’s revealed that during those years of marriage the LAPD were called to intervene over 8 times and of those times Simpson was never arrested or charged. A black man beating a, most say beautiful blonde white woman gets away with it. Against the backdrop of an environment where black men were/are being jailed for less. Where black life was/is not valued. Where four white LAPD officers caught on camera beating up a black man, are allowed to escape prison. Where a Korean woman who shoots a 15 year old black girl in the back of the head can get probation and community service. Simpson beats his white wife with no repercussion is a mythical superhero.
The fourth quarter intricately details the trial of Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. We know the details so I won’t recount. But with the exploration of how America was as Simpson evolved, this documentary does a very good job of explaining why the verdict which shocked white America and caused mass jubilation amongst black America was able to happen.
I was in college when the LA Riots broke out. I remember watching the Oprah Winfrey special on TV in tears. Like most young black Brits of my generation, British racial tensions had seemingly subsided in the majority. We’d had the Brixton riots of the 80s, during the 90s we were kind of lulled into a false sense of equality. The UK wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t America but were listening to Public Enemy and NWA, we were watching New Jack City and Menace II Society. We related to their truths even if it wasn’t happening in such magnitude in the UK. So in 1995 when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murders, I hadn’t been following the story gripped, but what I saw was a black man on trial for murdering a white woman in a place where white authorities were allowing the unlawful deaths of black people to occur unchallenged. Back then, as a political teen, I was happy O.J. Simpson was set free.
Watching this documentary, it’s still difficult to say definitively O.J. Simpson did it. Even with the overwhelming evidence pointing towards him – the history of domestic abuse with numerous recorded police emergency calls where you can hear him raging at Nicole; the night of the murders he has no alibi; he lied and then was forced to admit he owned shoes which matched the bloody footprints found at the murder scene; the matching blood found in his infamous white Bronco; the many abstract references / almost confessions from Simpson about the murders over the years since his acquittal – if it were anyone else he’d have been locked up no question. The documentary shows really graphic images of Nicole and Ron’s wounds. Nicole’s head was almost cut clean off, but even after everything it’s still difficult to align Simpson the superhero, handsome above blackness celebrity with what we assume a psychopathic killer to be. But for someone who has lived a life of buried tension. Someone who has denied who he is in order to survive. Someone who has forced himself into a society which generally rejects, dislikes and fears others of his kind. Someone whose self identity has been created from scratch, rather than truth. Someone who pretends to ignore the racial tension he was born into and out of. Someone who has learned to smile to hide the pain. Obviously, obviously, when someone lives a life of pent up suppression, they will eventually blow.
There’s a lot to be said about Simpson’s epitome of success being a blonde white woman and especially that it took a white woman to be the straw that broke the superhero negroe’s back! There’s a lot to be said about the forgiveness of black people. In the fifth quarter when you would expect Simpson to take his ‘win’ and lucky escape and turn his life around, he instead finds himself on a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol and bad friends which resulted in his current incarceration. Karma.
But we are shown that in his attempt to find himself he runs into the bosom of blackness. Seeking comfort from the community he’d worked his whole life to disassociate himself with. We also see the forgiveness of black women. There were 8 black women on the jury that acquitted Simpson of the murders. But they weren’t acquitting him for what black women have long had to get used to when it came to their favourite black male celebrities, and this is where the O.J. Simpson case becomes unfortunate. The jury in the case acquitted O.J. in retribution for the 400+ years of racial injustices. For Rodney King, for the Watts Riots, for Jim Crow laws, for slavery. In that moment Nicole and Ron were irrelevant. Johnny Cochran knew this and pushed for the racial jugular. The Race Card was played but with full justification, although at the expense of the families of Nicole and Ron.
A full analogy of the symbolism of O.J. Made in America would take a dissertation, so I am forced to wrap it up. It’s a must see documentary. It’s a worthy Oscar contender.