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 significance 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 Andrew McGregor reviewing Part V today. Chuck Westmoreland reviewed Part I on Monday, Cat Ariail Part II on Thursday, Kate Aguilar Part III on Friday, and Lindsay Parks Pieper Part IV on Saturday.
Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
If there was anything you didn’t know about O.J. Simpson or the trial after watching the first four parts of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America documentary, Part 5 probably filled in the gaps. The concluding segment of the film juxtaposes a variety of events and perspectives to bring viewers up-to-date on Simpson’s life since his infamous 1995 murder trial. Part 5 sticks closely to race, justice/injustice, and fame as its primary themes, while continuing to chronicle O.J.’s many character flaws and legal entanglements.
Part 5 is best understood as three distinct sections. The first third of Part 5 considers the verdict of his criminal trial for the murders of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ronald Goldman, placing it in the context of the racial history of Los Angeles and the LAPD. The second third explores the civil suit against O.J. Simpson and his precipitous fall from grace. The final third looks at his armed robbery arrest in Las Vegas.
Part 5 opens with O.J. Simpson competing in various sports – weightlifting, softball, bowling, and some sort of obstacle course race – and succeeding. Yet, layered on top of his athletic success is his voice: “You know, you’ve got to have tragedy in your life to really write an interesting autobiography.” What or who’s tragedy remains the question. There are a lot of tragedies in O.J.’s life, although the entire part of his life covered in Part 5 can also be read as a tragedy.
From there, picking up where Part 4 left off, the documentary turns to Friday, September 29, 1995, with Judge Lance Ito giving the jury its final instructions. Ito lists a handful of things that the jury must not let sway them, such as “sentiment, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion, or public feeling,” reminding them to fairly apply the law and “reach a just verdict regardless of the consequences,” hinting at the racial components of the trial.
The deliberations began with a sigh of relief from the prosecution, defense, and media alike. It was time for them to take a deep breath from the 8-month long trial and enjoy some down time while the jury weighed the facts. The jury, equally taxed by the long trial and solitary existence, was ready for a break too. Three and a half hours after beginning their deliberations, they had reached a verdict. The short deliberation time went against all conventional wisdom, inciting outrage in some of the prosecution. The trial was over.
The verdict was announced on Tuesday, October 3rd, 1995. It was an important day to the millions of Americans who followed the trial. In Los Angeles, crowds began lining up outside of the courthouse at 3:30 a.m. In rural Kansas, where I was a fourth grader, one of my classmates snuck a radio into class to listen to the decision. The mostly African Americans crowds in LA erupted in cheers, spooking the police horses that had lined up to supervise them. They chanted and high-fived with excitement. Some viewed the verdict as vindication, payback for the Rodney King riots and abusive behavior targeted at blacks by the LA police, and a symbol of progress in race relations. Indeed, several jury members corroborated these views and pushed back against the blame placed on them. Juror #9 claimed that 90% of the jury saw the verdict as payback. Perhaps more unsettling to those hoping for unbiased justice was the revelation that one juror was a former Black Panther.
Civil Rights activist Danny Bakewell suggested the jubilation was “payback for what’s happened for over 400 years, it was payback for how black people were treated in America.” Photos of lynchings and other racial violence appear under his words, reaffirming the countless injustices African Americans have faced. “That was on the minds of every black person in America,” he concludes.
White Americans, especially those living near Simpson in Brentwood, felt much differently about the verdict. Robert Shapiro – one of Simpson’s own attorney’s – told Barbara Walters he felt uncomfortable using the “race card,” and many of Simpson’s other white friends quickly disappeared. Though I don’t recall having a strong opinion or feeling about the trial, my classmate did. The not guilty verdict was a surprise to him like the rest of white America. As Peter Hyams, one of Simpson’s former friends, explained, “I think the black jubilation was very offensive, and very hurtful.” He found the built up resentment against whites to be “very shocking.” Likewise, many white Americans still felt that O.J. was guilty. The backlash against Simpson became a mixture of racism and a belief that he got away with murder.
Despite the celebrations of the verdict, trading injustice for injustice didn’t exactly feel like winning to many African Americans either. Following the verdict, Johnny Cochran had to remind the media that the black community does not condone murder. As the documentary attempts to show, O.J. Simpson the man, and O.J. Simpson the symbol were not the same. Black America celebrated the symbolic victory, yet still felt uneasy about him. They recognized that collective feeling of justice could not fully mask the injustice.
Simpson’s inability to return to a normal life left him searching. He was addicted to fame and adoration, and felt empty without it. To fill the void, O.J. embarks on a somewhat ironic and almost surely disingenuous, given the earlier parts of the documentary, campaign to (re)connect with the black community. He eats at Roscoe’s, gives testimonies at churches, and lectures his rich neighbors about how he’s lived in LA longer than them. Normalcy never quite returns for O.J. as his fame quickly turned into infamy.
The civil suit, which took place a year later, only added to Simpson’s troubles. It was much different trial, held in Santa Monica instead of downtown LA. No cameras were allowed in the courtroom, and the location likely affected the racial make up of the jury. All of that combined with a lighter burden of proof than the criminal trial — requiring only a preponderance of evidence in civil suits instead of beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases — and a guilty verdict was an almost forgone conclusion. Declared liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman, Simpson was on the hook for $33 million. The decision was step one in ruining Simpson’s life and finding a semblance of justice. Fred Goldman made it clear that his goal was “to be after him the rest of his life.”
Quickly, Simpson’s life starts to unravel. While the Goldman’s anger and grief were justified, the vigor that collection agencies and even the IRS pursued Simpson was reminiscent of Jack Johnson. His possessions were seized to pay the damages owed to the Browns and Goldmans, including personal items such as his mother’s house and piano. The satisfaction of seeing O.J. destroyed appeared as a strange blend of racism and poetic justice. Ultimately, O.J. and his friends took to hiding possessions in order to save them for his family and children, though some friends stole items for themselves.
For many, the documentary could have ended there. The two major trials were over. The civil suit restored a sense of justice. Yet, that was not the end. The downfall was much darker and deeper, highlighting the narcissism and ego of O.J. His pursuit of fame and a comfortable lifestyle lead him to Miami, where he made new friends and went wild.
Indeed, Simpson’s downward spiral is another tragedy within the larger tale, and one of entirely of his own making. In it the balance between justice, injustice, sympathy, and tragedy become tenuous. Edelman goes to great lengths to show us the many character flaws in Simpson. We get glimpses of his awful parenting, his lack of conscious, and continuing abusive behavior toward drugs and women. We see a broken man trying to survive in a world of guilt and hatred. Simpson tries to cope the only way he knows how, with fame and shady friends who feed his ego as he runs from his responsibilities.
Near rock bottom, O.J. pens, with the help of two ghostwriters, a book entitled “If I Did It” that is quickly cancelled and acquired by the Goldman’s through litigation. The Goldman’s published the book (against the wishes of the Browns) in an attempt to both out O.J. as the real killer and recoup more of their damages. By this point, Edelman has shared countless stories, removing little doubt about the truth behind the murders. His former agent Mike Gilbert and journalist Celia Farber detail moments of near confession. Simpson has become a nearly unsympathetic character.
Yet, despite the fall from grace and horrible life, there continues to be hints of the O.J. charm. Certain parts of O.J. never disappear, good and bad. For example, recalling Simpson’s past, one speaker explains that deep down O.J. is “street” and just “reverted back to his high school days.”
Throughout this part of the documentary we are forced to balance our sense of justice and injustice, ponder if O.J. is worthy of sympathy despite everything we learn, and wrestle with where race fits in.
Simpson’s attempt to “reclaim” his stolen property in Las Vegas with the use of a group of his friends to intimidate and threaten is the ultimate bonehead move. The armed robbery was an ego-fueled stunt. Prior to the incident, O.J. had reclaimed much of his celebrity status. People flocked to him as if the murders had never happened.
The trial for the armed robbery, however, made people rethink O.J.’s legacy one more time. Carrie Bess, juror #9 in the murder trial said, “I voted no then, and he’s a stupid ass for going out and getting into more shit.” Hinting that she slightly regrets her 1995 vote. Other former friends agreed, noting that he should have been a model citizen. Instead, he kept hurting the image of African American men. Now at his worst, they worried that he was a stain on their community.
Following the trial, an all-white jury found Simpson guilty of all ten charges against him. The decision was rendered 13 years to the day, of his acquittal in the murder trial. Judge Jackie Glass sentenced him to 33 years in prison – matching the $33 million in damages he owed the Browns and Goldmans. Carl Douglas, a member of the original dream team, told Edelman that the sentencing was not a coincidence. Douglas believed “that was at most a 2 year crime,” It was “the fifth quarter” he said, “They got back at O.J. for winning our case.” Simpson’s longtime friend, Joe Bell, agreed saying “that is white justice in American, man.” Simpson is eligible for parole in 2017.
Like each part of the O.J. Made in America documentary, Part 5 is heavy, but unlike the earlier parts its weight sneaks up on you. Throughout Part 5, Edelman forces the viewer to look at all sides of Simpson and the legal system. We have to look at justice and injustice, and consider its relationship to sympathy, race, money, fame, and tragedy. At the end it is never perfectly clear. It is never black and white.
Before the credits roll, we hear O.J. one last time: “Please remember me as the juice, please remember me as a good guy.” Part 5 makes it almost impossible to do that.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African-American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter:@admcgregor85