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 Cat Ariail reviewing Part II today. Chuck Westmoreland reviewed Part I on Monday.
Reviewed by Cat Ariail
I was skeptical. As someone trained to critically study sport, the near-universal advance praise for Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America gave me pause. The fact that many of these plaudits celebrated the historical context Edelman provided further prepared me, as a “real” historian,” to find flaws. However, my eagerness to criticize was misplaced. As Chuck noted in his review of Part One, OJ: Made in America warrants the praise it has garnered. The documentary’s thoroughness exceeded my expectations for, while I expected a sensitive treatment of Simpson’s racial identity, the racial biases of the LAPD, and the racial injustices experienced by black citizens of LA, the manner in which Edelman’s exposure of these racial tensions also incorporates gender and class identities and structures impressed me.
Put simply, O.J.: Made in America illuminates intersectionality, demonstrating how one’s racial, gender, and class identities intersect to determine one’s life possibilities. In a 1993 article for the Stanford Law Review, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer and critical race theorist, introduced the concept of intersectionality in order to examine “race and gender dimensions of violence against women of color,” (1242). Scholars and activist have since expanded the applicability of intersectionality, using it to ensure that all aspects of a person’s identity are recognized as relevant when considering their experiences. As I’ll discuss below, Edelman’s documentary appropriately highlights the entanglement of Simpson’s race, gender, and class identities, as well as those of Brown-Simpson, officers in the LAPD, and black Angelenos.
Furthermore, Edelman’s inclusion of historical context appropriately situates the intersectional identities of Simpson and other historical actors. In 1988, feminist scholar Donna Haraway theorized “situated knowledges” to critique science as fictionalized narratives that fail to consider alternative perspectives, arguing for “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being hear to make rational knowledge claims,” (589). Edelman’s documentary honors Haraway’s assertions. Instead of including a roster of sport, political, and culture “experts” to comment on the various persons and the events relevant to the life O.J. Simpson, thereby implicitly authorizing a definitive interpretation, Edelman almost solely includes the voices of persons with a direct connection to the developments, along with contemporary footage and images. Thus, the documentary does not pretend to offer an objective account. Viewers instead digest various situated perspectives. Through a collection of partial perspectives, Edelman allows viewers to gain a more comprehensive appreciation of these complex persons and events and, in turn, draw their own conclusions.
On the surface, the story of O.J. Simpson seems ill-suited to demonstrate the operation of feminist theories. Yet, Edelman’s directorial choices and filmic arrangements testify that Simpson’s life, as well as sport more broadly, in fact represents a rich terrain for exploring complex lives of individuals, just as Crenshaw and Haraway call for. By fully appreciating the complicated circumstances of historical actors, Edelman also illuminates how they negotiate these circumstances through their multiple identity categories. Thus, Edelman displays the agency of individuals. Part Two exposes the differential agenetic power of the documentary’s primary historical actors – Simpson, Brown-Simpson, the LAPD, and the members of Los Angeles’ socioeconomically marginalized black communities. Mediated by their particular circumstances, theses individuals and groups exercise agency in the pursuit of control or freedom. For the privileged and empowered Simpson and LAPD officers, expressing, protecting, and bolstering control describes their actions and intentions. In contrast, a claim to a greater sense of freedom motivates the decisions of Brown-Simpson and many oppressed, black Angelenos.
Part Two begins with an overview of early 1980s Brentwood, the primarily white, wealthy LA suburb where the Simpsons lived after Simpson’s retirement. A profile of the LAPD and the contentious tactics employed by officers in South Central LA immediately follows. This juxtaposition accentuates the stark contrast between Simpson’s lived-experience versus those of the majority of LA’s black citizens. The interviews and footage Edelman includes further illuminates how racial identity, combined with socioeconomic status, determined one’s estimation of the LAPD. The LAPD, led by chief Daryl Gates, likewise possessed particularized perceptions of the individuals they were supposed to protect or punish. A former LA police officer defends Gates by emphasizing his love for his officers and the department, suggesting these emotions sometimes conflicted with his duties. This statement unintentionally exposes how Gates and his officers prioritized the protection of their power and privilege over other responsibilities. As an institution emblematic of white, masculine, and upper middle class values, the LAPD did not have to navigate the terrain of 1980s LA. Instead, they indiscriminately could use brute force to press their prerogatives without consequence, as the shooting of Eula Love, a black woman with an outstanding twenty-two dollar gas bill, exemplifies.
In contrast to the LAPD, O.J. Simpson had to carefully negotiate the environments he occupied in order to protect his power. According to his agent Mike Gilbert, Simpson “was attuned to who his mother wanted him to be,” which, for Eunice Simpson, was a good, Christian man. Yet for Simpson, being “attuned” the desires of wealthy, white LA proved most important. As the comments shared by some of LA’s leading black civil rights activist attest, the priorities of the black community did not motivate Simpson. Civil rights activist Danny Bakewell describes Simpson as a “non-entity” in the struggle for racial equality in LA. Likewise, black LA represented a “non-entity” to Simpson. In his pursuit of fame and wealth, dismissal of the grievances expressed by black Angelenos proved strategically beneficial; distancing himself from black LA allowed him to “just fit in” with the wealthy, white men with whom he golfed, socialized, and conducted business.
While Edelman does not intend to illicit sympathy for Simpson, the perspectives he provides at least allow viewers to better understand Simpson’s intentions, no matter how seemingly twisted, cynical, or ignorant one may judge them to be. Viewers gain an understanding of the effectiveness of his “street smart,” “cunning and calculating” decisions and actions, as they helped him achieve his definition of success. In hindsight, Simpson’s ability to not only befriend but mesmerize members of the LAPD most grossly highlights his acute ability to navigate his situated circumstances and, in turn, how these navigations accrued him additional power and control. Edelman then returns to the LAPD’s relationship with almost all other black Angelenos, featuring comments about and footage of the overzealous Operation Hammer, indiscriminate drug raids, and the frequent use of the chokehold. This immediate juxtaposition productively reinforces the differential positioning of Simpson. Furthermore, these episodes demonstrate how the LAPD attempted to exert their control of and authority in LA by “neutralizing” persons who, according to the LAPD’s estimations, embodied gang and drug cultures. Black Angelenos thus represented objects to be controlled rather than humans to be understood.
In his quest for power, Simpson similarly considers others objects to be controlled. While managing how the prestigious circles of white LA viewed him required Simpson to carefully abide certain social conventions, he simply could employ brute masculine privilege to preserve his power over socially-subordinate women. He objectified women through his “brazen” and “entitled” womanizing. He also treated his wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson, as an object, violently battering her on repeated occasions. Descriptions of Brown-Simpson’s wet, cold, and abused body clinching to responding officer John Edwards after a 1989 domestic violence incident vividly exposes how her body served as vessel through which he exercised control and expressed power. Edwards provides a wrenching narration of the episode, including Simpson’s ominous escape from the scene of the crime. Referencing Simpson’s notoriety, he asks, “Where can he hide?” However, due to his relationship with the LAPD, Simpson does not have to hide, instead offering his version of the previous night’s event to LAPD officer and friend Ron Shipp. Shipp also meets Brown-Simpson at the LAPD, where she shares images of her past beatings, leading Shipp to retrospectively conclude that Simpson was “a typical batterer” who received “preferential treatment.”
Simpson’s ability to evade arrest due to the privileges he cultivated starkly contrasts with the indignities experienced by Rodney King in 1991. Again, Edelman’s directorial juxtaposition serves to illuminate the situated advantages enjoyed by Simpson compared to the disadvantageous reality that most black persons in Los Angeles encountered daily. The fact that none of the officers who beat King reported wrongdoing, thus suggesting that they did not consider the King beating wrong or aberrational, further accentuates this contrast. Yet, while comparing Simpson’s and King’s fates heightens a reality most viewers likely already recognize, Edelman’s decision to include the murder of Latasha Harlins exemplifies how his documentary best speaks to intersectionality.
Thirteen days after the police abuse of King, the fifteen year-old Harlins was killed by a female, Korean grocer with a handgun because she suspected Harlins of stealing orange juice. In contrast to the LAPD officers who did not face conviction for their abuse of King, Soon Ja Du was convicted, but the judge, a white woman, sentenced her to five years of probation. The racial, gender, ethnic, and class identities of the historical actors involved in these respective instances captures how identities complexly interact to mediate one’s possibilities. The differential responses of LA’s black community to the King beating and Harlins murder further illustrate the complicated operation of intersectionality. Whereas the King beating inspired black Angelenos to respond to decades of disrespect for black life, Harlins’s murder did not motivate a mass reaction. It was deemed impossible for a young black woman to embody the inequities experienced by black LA.
For ESPN’s SportsLook’s Roy Firestone and his corporate sponsors, the idea that Simpson represented a wife beater equally seemed like an impossibility. And like Simpson’s sponsors, Brown-Simpson also chose not to walk away from Simpson. The complicated realities of victims of domestic violence are historically indecipherable. However, Edelman gives Brown-Simpson a voice through the testimonies of her friends and excerpts from her diary. This evidence, in conjunction with the extensive exposure of Simpson’s privileges, provides viewers a perspective from which to better understand her choices. The chilling recording of Brown-Simpson’s 1993 911 call also allows viewers to bear witness to Simpson’s crimes. Along with his inclusion of Latasha Harlins’s murder, Edelman’s insertion of the 911 call recovers experiences rendered historically invisible due to hierarchies of race, gender, and class. They also serve as an important reminder of the fact that, although Edelman’s documentary seeks to speak to broader social, political, and cultural realities in the U.S., real lives were damaged and lost due to the unchecked operation of race, gender, and class hierarchies in LA in the 1980s and 1990s.
Footage of the resistance of black LA after the failure to convict the officers responsible for beating Rodney King also reminds viewers of the humanity of the subordinated; their angered, pained response expresses agency and freedom. Images of the violence enacted on property and persons illuminate how members of the South Central community defied the LAPD’s control. Yet, using violence as a strategy of resistance proves complex, as the absence of the LAPD as South Central erupted exemplifies. The LAPD’s lack of response can be read as a further manifestation of the disregard for black life; however, their lack of presence can also be read as an admission of fear, as the police proved unwilling to perform their responsibilities when they could not exert control on their terms. However, structural racism ensured this expression of black power remained temporary and did not threaten the power arrangements that had long-characterized LA.
Nicole Brown-Simpson similarly attempted to re-articulate the power dynamics of her and Simpson’s relationship. After the 1993 incident of domestic violence, Brown-Simpson left Simpson. This final beating, akin to the impact of the King beating on black persons in LA, pushed Brown-Simpson to claim her freedom. Not only her decision to leave Simpson, but also her (likely but unconfirmed) affair with Marcus Allen, Simpson’s protege, represented her “personal rebellion.” She used her body, which Simpson had possessed and abused, explicitly to refute his control. As her friend Robin Greer states, Brown-Simpson’s decisions and actions confidently proclaimed, “Watch me run.” Greer further suggests that Brown-Simpson’s change also changed Simpson, with the realization that control of Brown-Simpson was “unattainable” resulting in the “spiraling of him.” Part II closes with this cruel glint of promise, allowing the viewer to momentarily envision a different fate for Brown-Simpson.
Part Two not only escalates the entertainment value of Edelman’s documentary, but, by throughly situating all historical actors and developments, also increases its value as a sport history documentary. As Chuck rightly recognized in his review, Edelman’s work possesses great potential for teaching. As an engaging work that illuminates the importance of historical context, it could inspire students to further explore the historical ramifications of the issues wrestled with, as well as consider other issues, such as the policies of the Ronald Reagan administration, the rise of anti-feminist backlash, or the increasing popularity of cultural media produced by African Americans, that may provide alternative perspectives of the the America in which O.J. was made. For, despite the nearly eight hours Edelman has devoted to O.J. Simpson’s rise and fall, the complexity of history, which features the situated experiences of persons who live their intersectional identities, makes a definitive historical documentary impossible. Edelman’s directorial decisions indicate he recognizes the partiality of historical interpretation. His work thus deserves critical admiration, even from “real” historians.
Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport, race, and nationalism in the late-twentieth century U.S. and Caribbean. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.