As part of ESPN’s 30 for 30, O.J.: Made in America examines O.J. Simpson’s movement through the American cultural, political, and social landscape of the past five decades. The five-segment documentary explores the significances of race, gender, celebrity, and violence in Simpson’s football career and later criminal trial. The Sport in American History blog will be reviewing all five parts, with Chuck Westmoreland reviewing Part I today.
Reviewed by Chuck Westmoreland
“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.’”—O.J. Simpson
“He was so privileged. He was so accepted. He was so embraced that he was immune from the reality that he could find in the mirror every morning, that he was a black man. No matter how far he runs and how long he runs, when you look in the mirror that black man is gonna be right there with you every day.” –Civil rights activist Danny Bakewell
Orenthal James (O.J.) Simpson’s football career and public life was synonymous with speed. As a member of the world-record 440-meter relay team at the University of Southern California (USC), Simpson and his teammates left their competitors in the dust. As a running back at USC, he darted through and around tacklers on his way to the 1968 Heisman Trophy. As a Buffalo Bill, “The Juice” exploded on the field and into the record books, becoming the first NFL running back to gain 2,000 yards in a single season. As a pitchman for the Hertz Rental Car Company, Simpson famously sprinted through the airport as Girl Scouts, businessmen, and an elderly white woman shouted with excitement and joy, “Go, O.J.! Go!” As a black man in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, O.J. ran away from the San Francisco ghetto, the racial politics of his era, and the confines of skin color as he chased his American Dream of fame and fortune.
Then, on June 17, 1994, Simpson’s bright star came crashing down to earth. Los Angeles police pursued Simpson, now a murder suspect in the brutal stabbings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. The Hall-of-Famer sat in the back of a white Ford Bronco as Al Cowlings, a childhood friend and football teammate at USC, drove 35 miles per hour on the 405 in the most watched and most bizarre police “chase” in U.S. history. With a gun to his head and threatening suicide, Simpson, the football hero and celebrity icon, had transformed into a fugitive from justice right before a nation’s eyes. On a Friday night, millions of Americans were glued to their TVs to see that, this time, O.J. would be caught.
Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America chronicles O.J. Simpson’s movement through the American social, political, and cultural landscape of the past five decades. Before its debut on ABC this past Saturday night, the five-part, long-form documentary had received universal praise. Early reviews lauded Edelman’s work as the best in ESPN’s critically-acclaimed 30 for 30 series. The series promises to offer more than a biography of Simpson and vows not to be a documentary in the “true crime” vein. Edelman rejected a “whodunit” approach and has even gone on record to say that his documentary will not drop any bombshells regarding the Brentwood murders of June 12, 1994, and the subsequent “Trial of the Century.” Instead, O.J.: Made in America seeks to understand the broader forces that shaped the O.J. Simpson story, which Edelman contends is a quintessentially American one. The saga of O.J. is that of a nation grappling with race, class, gender, domestic violence, the criminal justice system, the modern American celebrity culture, and the pursuit of the American Dream. Edelman, like many of his 30 for 30 predecessors, places great value on historical context to complement vivid storytelling and a wealth of terrific archival footage. If the first episode of this rise-and-fall tale is any indication, then Edelman has created a masterpiece.
The documentary begins with the words of Simpson, words that will surely echo throughout the series: “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.’” Simpson starred at Galileo High School and San Francisco City College before finding glory at USC, a college football powerhouse and incubator of the Los Angeles business and political elite. With blazing speed and uncanny instincts, Simpson left an indelible mark on USC and college football history while playing only two seasons. In 1967, he gained over 1,500 yards and scored 13 touchdowns as he led USC to a dramatic win against rival UCLA and a national championship. Simpson was even more dynamic in his senior year. He dominated his opponents with 1,709 yards and 22 touchdowns. When the Downtown Athletic Club cast its votes for the 1968 Heisman Trophy, Simpson won the largest landslide victory in the history of this prestigious award. Not surprisingly, coaches and media doused Simpson with praise. He was not only a great athlete but a fine citizen and, according to USC head coach John McKay, “a tremendous boy.” The adulation of O.J. ran so deep that even Bob Hope feted the charming, smiling USC star.
The documentary hits its stride when detailing the rise of O.J. Simpson within the context of post-World War II Los Angeles. Through fascinating archival footage, Edelman addresses the Great Migration of black southerners to the West Coast and confronts the myths and realities of race in post-war Los Angeles. Although boosters promoted L.A. as a haven of freedom and progress for African Americans, black migrants confronted police brutality on a regular basis. Despite a public image of professionalism and integrity, the LAPD under Chief Bill Parker recruited officers from Ku Klux Klan rallies and showed not a shred of lenience toward black criminal suspects. Tensions over police brutality boiled over with the Watts uprising of 1965. This deadly conflict took place just two years before O.J. stepped foot on the USC campus, which the documentary presents as an island of white wealth and privilege inside a city on edge. This segment is especially vital to the longer story of the murder trial as it highlights the long history of conflict between L.A.’s black community and local police. It also helps lay the groundwork for some of the key figures in the Simpson trial, namely Simpson himself, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, and prosecutor Chris Darden, all products of the Great Migration to the West Coast.
O.J.’s surge to stardom coincided with and was shaped by the black athletic revolt of the 1960s. Whereas prominent athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), John Carlos, and Tommie Smith became outspoken activists against racial discrimination and the Vietnam War, college football’s greatest star remained silent on the political issues of his day. San Jose State sociologist and activist Harry Edwards worked hard to generate support for an Olympic boycott by black athletes. His efforts bore fruit when Alcindor, the leading star in college basketball from nearby UCLA, refused to play in the 1968 Olympics. Smith and Carlos did attend the Mexico City Games but made their political statement on the medal stand following the 200-meter dash. Smith and Carlos were barefoot in a gesture to symbolize black poverty. They wore badges in solidarity with Edwards’s Olympic Project for Human Rights. And, in the most defiant symbolic act of all, they wore black gloves and raised their fists in a Black Power salute. Smith, Carlos, and other participants in the black athletic revolt of the 1960s were reviled by the mainstream white press, criticized by moderate and conservative African Americans, and denied opportunities for endorsements. When Edwards spoke with Simpson about the responsibility of leading black sports figures to become engage the civil rights struggle, he replied, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.” The message was clear. O.J. Simpson was a running back and not an activist. When he donned the pads and helmet, O.J. ran for no one or nothing else but O.J.
The quote “I’m not black. I’m O.J.” lands a powerful punch and defines the parameters of this episode. As Simpson conquered college football and embarked on a pro career, he separated himself from the civil rights movement and invented a public persona that looked to transcend race. The creation of a “colorless” and “counterrevolutionary” O.J. proved to be a goldmine for Simpson and corporate sponsors alike. After being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1969, Simpson signed endorsements deals with various companies, most notably Chevrolet. Ultimately, Hertz came to O.J. and gave him his most memorable commercial role. While companies kept their distance from the likes of Ali, Russell, and Alcindor, O.J. was the toast of corporate America. He smiled. He hawked products. He stayed away from controversy. O.J., quite simply, was safe to white Americans. A career in acting and broadcasting, a place in Hollywood high society, and a friendship with millionaire attorney and businessman Robert Kardashian soon followed his entry into the NFL. As O.J. reached new heights on and off the field in the 1970s, the gulf between himself and the daily struggles of black America grew wider. Joe Bell, one of Simpson’s childhood friends and a font of great stories and quotes, blamed white America for “brainwashing” his longtime friend. Throughout the episode, though, it seems clear that Simpson knew exactly what he was doing in his professional and public life.
Success in the pros would have to wait as Simpson got off to a rocky start in Buffalo. The snowy winters of upstate New York took Simpson far away from his comfort zone of southern California. More troubling to Simpson, the Bills’ offensive strategy handcuffed the speedster. John Rauch, the Buffalo coach during Simpson’s first three seasons, employed a pass-first offense that expected running backs to catch passes out of the backfield. Simpson had running prowess but he couldn’t catch a cold. He compiled only 1,927 yards in his first three seasons and struggled in Rauch’s offense, prompting some observers to tag him with the label of “bust.” The Bills changed coaches in 1972, a move that turned around Simpson’s fortunes. When Lou Saban took control of the team, he made Simpson the offensive workhouse. Simpson’s numbers skyrocketed in Saban’s running game. In 1972, Simpson had his first 1,000-yard season and earned the first of five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, as well as his first league rushing title.
The best was yet to come. Simpson’s 1973 season would be unparalleled in NFL history. Thanks to the strong blocking of his offensive line, known as the “Electric Company,” the Juice was turned up to full capacity. Whether in sunshine, rain, or the New York snow, Simpson was unstoppable. He broke Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record and became the first back to gain 2,000 yards in a single season. His average of 143 yards per game remains an NFL record. Simpson scored 12 touchdowns, which doubled his previous career high, and was a surefire NFL Most Valuable Player. When Simpson broke the record and was scheduled to do a postgame interview with commentator Frank Gifford, he insisted that his offensive teammates conduct the interview with him. Simpson gave his teammates, especially the Electric Company, the credit for this astonishing record. The interview with Gifford embodied the public image that O.J. wanted. Here was a humble, funny, and likeable guy who just cared about playing football and living the American Dream.
Over the next three years, Simpson won two more league rushing titles. Despite his first three lackluster seasons, the jolt of success from 1972 to 1976 guaranteed Simpson an eventual spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Simpson finished his playing days with two modest seasons for his hometown San Francisco 49ers. The end of his football career was no problem for O.J. He was now able to turn his full attention to Hollywood.
With so much rich footage and so many compelling stories about the public O.J., Edelman could have easily filled several hours without mentioning his private life. The private O.J., however, is essential to understanding the public O.J. Amid the footage of touchdowns and television ads, Edelman intersperses stories of Simpson’s personal life. The episode describes Simpson’s difficult childhood in poverty and the struggles of his hard-working mother, Eunice. In Simpson’s own words, “From the time we were ten years old, we were hustlers.” The young Simpson used his charm and street smarts to get out of sticky situations. He had no hesitation about stealing his best friend’s girlfriend. We learn that, in the hyper-masculine world of the black ghetto, Simpson’s father was a homosexual. The documentary hints that perhaps Simpson’s strongly heterosexual persona was a reaction to his father’s sexuality. While “O.J. was out being O.J.,” Simpson’s wife and high school sweetheart, Marguerite Whitley Simpson, lived a lonely life raising the couples’ two children in the ritzy Bel Air section of L.A.
The episode concludes with Simpson’s 1977 visit to The Daisy, a popular discotheque in Beverly Hills. There, Simpson met Nicole Brown, “a gorgeous little surfer blonde” who waited tables. At the time, Simpson was still married to Marguerite. Simpson told Jack Hanson, the white owner of the club and “a USC guy,” that he was going to marry the 18-year-old waitress. After their first date, in a sign of things to come, Brown came home with ripped jeans. She told a male friend that Simpson was “a little forceful” but that she really liked him. Not long after they first met, Simpson wanted to buy an apartment and a car for his newfound fling. Despite her friend’s concerns, Nicole and O.J. pursued what Brown’s sister called a “real love affair.”
Part One of O.J.: Made in America is a work of thorough research, captivating interviews, clear historical context, and powerful footage that illuminates the life and times of O.J. Simpson’s glory days. Its attention to key themes in U.S. sport history will make it a valuable classroom resource. It is also a work of great contrasts. California dreams meet California nightmares. We see the placid world of O.J.’s USC juxtaposed with the assassinations and violent protests of 1968. The hard streets of San Francisco give way to the glamour of Beverly Hills. The black man who grew up in a black community comes to reject his black identity. Sport serves as a vehicle of individual achievement and personal gain yet also provides an avenue for social activism and expressions of racial pride. A cheerful, heroic American football star is simultaneously impulsive, manipulative, and violent. These contrasts are at the heart of the O.J. Simpson story. These contrasts are also America.
Chuck Westmoreland is Assistant Professor of History at Delta State University where he teaches a variety of courses in modern U.S. and southern history, including a course on sport and the American experience. He is currently completing a book manuscript on religion and politics in the South from the era of the modern civil rights movement through the rise of the New Christian Right. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @chwestmo7