The trajectory of O. J. Simpson’s life eventually touched on almost every aspect American society, revealing a toxic nexus of wealth, celebrity, race, privilege, and violence.
By Matt Hanson
After watching all seven and a half absorbing hours of Ezra Edelman’s ESPN documentary O.J.: Made In America, now streaming online, it’s not surprising that Simpson’s rise and fall continues to resonate today. The trajectory of his life eventually touched on almost every aspect of American society, revealing a toxic nexus of wealth, celebrity, race, privilege and violence. At times, the trial became a postmodern version of Othello.
We are taken through Simpson’s rough childhood in the San Francisco projects and his incredible athletic ability as a star running back at USC. Simpson won the prestigious Heisman Trophy and the adoration of his predominantly white, middle-class peers, who fawned over his athletic prowess on the field almost as much as his affability, which was especially appealing given the era’s racial unrest.
There’s a powerful moment when one of Simpson’s radicalized childhood friends recalls asking him why virtually all of his friends were white, and why he has avoided any gestures of racial solidarity. Simpson’s response: “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” The remark is distressingly glib, not to mention insulting. It also suggests Simpson’s growing awareness of America’s double standard regarding the rich and famous: at a certain level, identity is up for sale. Most of us have to accept the roles they inherit at birth. Self-creation is possible, provided you have enough social capital to buy it.
Simpson’s record-breaking skills on the gridiron for the Buffalo Bills and the 49ers elevated him even further up the ranks of the social elite, where his acceptance by white America made him one of the first prominent African-American corporate spokesmen, most notably for Hertz rental cars. The lucrative paychecks and star power allowed Simpson to bask in the privilege his wealth, good looks, charisma, and wholesome appeal bought him. Culturally, it elevated his public stature to a state of grace almost unthinkable today.
After the recent, well-publicized downfalls of once beloved figures such as Bill Cosby and Joe Paterno, just to name a few, we’re less credulous now about the private lives of the celebrity class. Arriving just before the soap opera of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the gruesome deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman put the lie to America’s naive tendency to believe in the virtue of our cultural icons.
So, did O.J. do it? Well, yes and no. It depends on who’s asking and whom you ask. If you consider the prosecution’s case, it’s open-and-shut, almost head-smackingly obvious. There is plenty of damning evidence: the many widely documented examples of Simpson’s violent temper, his many years of flagrant womanizing and domestic abuse, his raging sexual jealousy at his wife’s attraction to his younger rival, Marcus Allen, the lack of a solid alibi during the time when the murders took place, his erratic behavior afterward, and so on.
And yet, the brutal media lesson emerges: it’s not enough to just have the facts on your side, stage-managing the narrative is everything, particularly when the masses are watching. In a court of law establishing the integrity of those providing the evidence is paramount. We can be grateful that there was no social media echo chamber to magnify the hysteria about the trial. Rumors about public figures get so much traction on social media because people are always more than happy to assume that what they want to be true actually is. Two-thirds of white people assumed Simpson was guilty, while two-thirds of black people were convinced he was innocent.
One of Simpson’s lawyers remarks that he’s tired of hearing how they played the race card. He claims, correctly enough, that what they played was the credibility card. After the decades of corruption, brutality, and overt racism, most people, let alone any one of color, were deeply skeptical of the altruism or objectivity of the Los Angeles Police Department. The documentary is very thorough on the LAPD’s legacy of abuse and cruelty, which nurtured virulent distrust of official institutions in the city for generations, a state of mind that is sadly more relevant than ever.
Consider Mark Fuhrman, the police officer whose documented use of racial slurs helped to put the nail in the coffin of the prosecution’s case. Fuhrman is given ample time to tell his side of the story, which is not a happy one, but his believability sank even further when I discovered that Fuhrman went on to become a frequent contributor to Hannity. Fox News’s stoking of racialized white working class anger at race tensions and “political correctness” likely took root in the role Fuhrman’s testimony played in the trial.
As a dopey white person, then and now, I remember being surprised and confused by the reaction of the black community to the verdict. Catching a glimpse at a woman in the crowd that had gathered in downtown LA to hear the decision — she looked like she’d just heard that Bambi’s mother died — I got it.
For the community that had been through innumerable indignities at the hands of the police, from the Watts riots in the sixties to the then-recent trauma of Rodney King, it would be incredibly naïve to ignore the institutional failures that are a fact of life for minorities in America, including the less-publicized incidents of police brutality. The masterstroke of Simpson’s defense was to make the trial about the system, bankrupt and hypocritical, that accused him. It’s no wonder that an exhausted jury would vote to acquit.
The aftermath of the trial proves the old saying: what begins in tragedy ends in farce. Simpson’s defense lawyers reaped celebrity benefits after the trial. Johnny Cochran inspired a Seinfeld character and, of course, Robert Kardashian begat the biggest and most vapid of the reality TV families, which is fitting because the O.J. trial was what whet the public’s appetite for reality TV in the first place.
After regaining his freedom, Simpson fled his creditors to Miami and dove headfirst into a bottomless pool of sleaze and decadence with the occasional crass cash-grab thrown in for good measure. The Raging Bull-like reclamation of his repossessed memorabilia with pistol-packing goons in tow in a Vegas hotel room would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. I caught myself wondering if among the items he was trying to reclaim were some of the autographed footballs he used to pay his legal bills while in court.
Meditating on the trial now is a valuable reminder of society’s dangerous tendency to project its obsessions onto our media figures, especially for a public hungry to have its grievances to be validated on the national stage. The hunger for exorcism becomes even more strident in an age of the blogosphere and social media; the masses tune in to see (and comment on) what they want to see, regardless of the subject’s real nature or meaning. The already tenuous line between news and entertainment fades away. The life of O.J. Simpson, told with admirable objectivity in Edelman’s superb documentary, serves as a cautionary tale — whatever America makes it also breaks.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.