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 Kate Aguilar reviewing Part III today. Chuck Westmoreland reviewed Part I on Monday and Cat Ariail reviewed Part II on Thursday.
Reviewed by Kate Aguilar
I read multiple reviews in anticipation of director Ezra Edelman’s almost eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America, which premiered on Saturday, June 11. Of all who praised Edelman for his scope, his wisdom, and attention to detail – and the documentary, as Ariail mentioned, has been almost-universally praised – one reviewer predicted it would be all people talked about the week it was released. The irony, of course, is the world doesn’t stop, not even for a cultural critique of the “trial of the century.” Yes, O.J.: Made in America is captivating. Worth our attention even, but it shares a small screen with actual current events.
Perhaps what makes this series so compelling is that even amidst such current events, it does not feel altogether dated. Amidst such unthinkable tragedies, the appearance of the 1994 Time magazine cover contextualizing this case as an American tragedy does not appear a gross exaggeration. As Edelman carefully and cautiously teases out, even when people were and are talking about O.J. – which we have been in some form and fashion for fifty years – they are never just talking about O.J. O.J. is a part of multiple and intersecting conversations on race, color, class, masculinity, sport, celebrity, and social justice in an American cultural and political framework. These comprise a much larger conversation on power, about who controls the narrative and why, which impacts our understanding of current events. For this reason, O.J. remains relevant.
Fascinatingly enough, he exists in these conversations as the good guy and the bad all the while wielding the power to force us out of traditional boxes into somewhere in the middle. It is in the “middle” of the documentary that the complexity of who O.J. was and what he would come to represent comes to a head. In part three, the viewer is finally introduced to the most talked about aspect of his life to-date: the murder, the “chase,” and ultimately the “trial of the century.” In his trial notes, O.J. describes this moment as “game time.”
After years of cultivating a position of colorblindness for White consumption, which included distancing himself from the civil rights movement and the revolt of the Black athlete, he and his legal defense team purportedly “play the race card”. The problem with this phrasing, which Deputy District Attorney Bill Hodgman uses to describe the defense team’s approach, is that it suggests that race is only utilized by people of color, not a lived reality but a form of manipulation meant to gain an unfair advantage over Whites. Edelman’s framing of the “trial of the century” within a longer history of racial and cultural politics in America and Southern California, however, shows how deftly Whites understood their own “race card.” They would use their own positionality in a cultural and political landscape and, later, O.J. Simpson to legitimize themselves. In making O.J. “less Black” culturally and consequently more marketable, they increased his celebrity status and, through him, their own.
Director Fred Levinson’s candid acknowledgement of why he placed only White people around O.J. in the Hertz commercial to make him socially acceptable is but one example of how O.J. was always seen as Black and therefore a White “race (and cultural) card” had to be played to maximize his celebrity. He never actually transcends color, as this commercial reinforces. Skin tone is immutable. But he challenges the boundaries of what it means to be Black, the tenuous relationship between race and culture in America. In doing so, he represents how important it is to explore race, color, and culture in conversation to at least begin to understand O.J. and the nation.
Part three begins with the brutal murders of O.J.’s estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, a waiter and friend who was returning a pair of sunglasses Nicole’s mother had left at a restaurant earlier that evening. The two were murdered on June 12, 1994. Goldman, it was believed, walked in during or shortly after Simpson’s murder and was subsequently killed. When detective Mark Fuhrman, among others, went to tell O.J. the news, they noticed blood on his White Ford Bronco and a glove around the premises.
O.J. almost immediately became the prime suspect. He was set to surrender himself on June 17, 1994, to avoid a “media circus.” He instead fled with friend and former USC teammate Al Cowlings, with Cowlings at the wheel of the White Bronco while O.J. held a gun to his head. The two led the police on a slow-speed “chase” the likes of which no one had ever seen. According to the first helicopter pilot on the scene, Zoey Tur, “Because he transcended race and color to this exalted status of celebrity, he got a motorcade.” The news media themselves described it not as a chase but an “accompaniment,” as Cowlings steered O.J. towards his Brentwood home.
Part three is captivating because Edelman has diligently worked his way up to this moment. To begin with the trial, as most often do when discussing O.J., provides a false perspective of race as merely a rhetorical flourish. Something O.J. discarded and later utilized. An ace in the hole, if you will. But Edelman shows historically how the deck was stacked. Blackness was not something O.J. could ever escape, avoid, or transcend. It always mattered to the life and narrative of O.J. Simpson. He was able to use the sport of football, a sport historically laden with connections to nationalism, Whiteness, war, and imperialism to highlight his prowess, to present himself as an archetypal American man. He and others used it as a commentary on his character. 75% percent of the largely non-White jury would later state that they believed O.J. couldn’t have committed the crime because he played football at USC.
But he was still a Black man on the field and in a country that continues to define Whiteness and White culture as the normative. Bob Hope’s joke about his name – “With a name like Orenthal, you have to run fast” – along with commentary on how O.J. stuck out at USC are reminders of how Americans viewed him, through a certain racial and cultural lens. This gaze would inform how and why he reinvented himself.
Of course, race was not the only identity “at play.” As Ariail poignantly articulates, Edelman shows just how intricately race, color, class, gender, and sport celebrity are intertwined, how each and all inform O.J.’s and an American experience. It is because of this interplay that a Black superstar who supposedly never saw race until the justice system “forced” him to, could casually ask the police upon arrest, “What are all these n*****s doing in Brentwood?” This language provides insight into how O.J. may have perceived race in relation to color and social class.
His defense team or the “Dream Team” as they were dubbed, which included Robert Shapiro, Civil Rights lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Carl Douglas, and Robert Kardashian, also recognized this interplay. They admittedly manipulated the crime scene to make O.J. more culturally appealing to the Blacks. After gaining permission to take the jury to his home, they switched out pictures and artwork to reflect a Black man committed to and very much a part of the Black community. “If we had had a Latin jury, we would have had a picture of him in a sombrero,” defense lawyer Carl Douglas explained. “There would have been a mariachi out front. We would have had a piñata at the top of the staircase.”
The audience already knows the outcome, even though part three ends just as the trial gets underway. In this segment, we are given a glimpse into a brutal crime scene, privy to an unusual pursuit, and provided insight into the selection of the trial location and jury. But part three is significant foremost because it shows how who O.J. was and what O.J. would come to represent intersects. The “media circus” surrounding him has long suggested he was a Black athlete who transcended race and then “fell” from grace, becoming Black on the way down. As if Blackness is the product of poor choices not systems of power.
Edelman, instead, shows O.J. as a Black man who is a part of a long, complex history of race, color, and culture in America. Edelman’s “cast” gives voice to the fact that Blacks in America did not rally around O.J. because they were manipulated into doing so, because a race card was thrown down. They did so because after a War on Poverty, War on Drugs, the militarization of the police and the treatment of Blacks as public enemy number one, they recognized him, regardless of his flaws, as one of their own. His skin color connected him to them and this case to a longer history of political neglect and police overreach.
Yes, the world does not stop for O.J. Simpson. Nor will it stop for a documentary of him, even with the Oscar buzz. But O.J.: Made in America reminds us O.J. is worth the reflection because of his and this case’s continued ability to make us question how we approach the study of race, color, class, gender, and sport into the twenty-first century. He forces us to explore who shapes the narrative and why and how to reframe such conversations. Edelman ultimately challenges us to reconsider the voices of this American tragedy. To look past O.J. To listen to his friends, to former teammates, to colleagues, to Nicole Brown Simpson, to the prosecution, even to the cops, to listen to people of all races and creeds and recognize how we are all interconnected. He reminds us why this case is relevant and makes us take another look. This look reminds us to stop and think more critically about race, color, and culture in America. For if we do not eventually learn from this history, he warns, the tragedy will be our own.
Kate Aguilar is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Connecticut. Her dissertation assesses how the intersection of race, gender, and sport helped popularize the Reagan narrative, a conservative zeitgeist of the Reagan presidency that articulated, among other things, a reimagining of American manhood. Prior to becoming a Husky fan, Kate received an M.A. in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University (2009; Go Hoosiers!) and a B.A. in Black Studies from DePauw University.