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 reviewed all five parts separately. Chuck Westmoreland reviewed Part I, Cat Ariail Part II, Kate Aguilar Part III, Lindsay Parks Pieper Part IV, and Andrew McGregor Part V. Today Kate Aguilar considers the documentary in its entirety.
Reviewed by Kate Aguilar
Football fans are often uncomfortable with a tie. At least, American football fans. They can happen; they do happen. But they often lead to an uproar. A recent example was the Carolina Panthers taking on the Cincinnati Bengals in 2014. They played for four quarters plus a “sudden-death” overtime and still no winner. The St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers tied in 2012. Then there were the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers in 2013. In fact, the Panthers and Bengals were so notable because they made it three ties in three years. This hadn’t happened in the NFL since 1987-89.
The result was an uproar over a “flawed” overtime system. Sports Illustrated contributor Don Banks speculated it wasn’t the system but the expectations that were flawed. In a column for “The Monday Morning Quarterback,” he surmised, “Here’s a good rule to live by, in sports and otherwise: Everything in moderation. Including NFL ties.” What Banks did not discuss but Ezra Edelman’s masterful documentary, O.J.: Made in America, brings to light is that an altogether different question exists. What happens when everyone loses?
After watching almost eight-hours of footage on the life and fall of legendary collegiate and professional football player O.J. Simpson, almost eight-hours of interviews with friends, fans, and “foes,” it is impossible not to wonder: who wins? So much is at stake; differing agendas and perspectives are at play. Yet the question remains.
It appears at first glance that “the Juice” does. O.J. moves from relative obscurity in “the projects” of San Francisco to national renown as an All-American and Heisman Trophy winner for USC. Above all, he desires to be known, to be famous, and he achieves that goal. From his work on the field, including a 1973 record-breaking 2,003 yard season with the Buffalo Bills, to his work in front of the camera, he moves from “a sports star to a bona fide celebrity.” He does so, in large part, because of his commercials with Hertz where he becomes the first Black athlete to serve as pitchman. Former Hertz CEO Frank Olson claims his appeal was because he transcended race.
What an exploration of “the Superstar in Rent-a-Car” ads showed, however, was just how important race and culture proved to his pitch. The absence of Black people was necessary to divorce him from Black culture and gain White America’s trust. In parts one and two, the audience witnesses how carefully O.J. crafts himself as colorblind, as one not defined by race or tethered to it. All the while, Edelman shows how important race and sport actually were to the shaping of this public persona and the cultural politics of Southern California.
Part one explores the making of a Black celebrity. Part two is a laundry list of cases of LAPD overreach and brutality that terrorized the Black community throughout the twentieth-century. These examples feel particularly timely considering Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s recent “vehement dissent” in a Fourth Amendment case. She writes, “It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. . . . For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ — instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger — all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.” Lindsay Pieper refers to such statistics in her thoughtful review of part four.
It is this knowledge that haunts the making of a Black celebrity and his rise and fall throughout the documentary. That even when “the Juice” appears to win, he loses. To rise to fame in (White) America, he loses his identity. He loses his first wife and a child. The Black community comes to identify him as a lost cause. He becomes addicted to fame and fortune, and as his childhood friend Joe Bell remembers it, “He was seduced by white society.”
Edelman’s lens is so compelling because he captures this complexity all the while revealing “the Juice” as not without agency. He does not merely lose such things or people; he often sacrifices them to get ahead. Thus, he is not the only loser in the story. Andrew McGregor captures this in his powerful critique of part five; after all, O.J. lives to write his “tragedy” in a tasteless book entitled If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer (2007). Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were not afforded the same opportunity. Parts three, four, and five highlight how even as perhaps a pawn of White America, O.J. contributed to his public perception and ultimately his undoing.
Edelman’s documentary is worth our attention because he underscores how dangerous it can be to divorce the personal from the popular and vice versa. To understand O.J. and how the country reacted, we must understand the history of race and sport in Southern California and America. Exploring the history of race and sport in America allows us to more appropriately judge O.J. Simpson. McGregor mentioned the legendary Jack Johnson in his critique. In the documentary, novelist Walter Mosely speaks of how important Black heroes are to the Black community, regardless if they define themselves as such. Sport made men into heroes and sometimes gods. Black athletes, nonetheless, remained vulnerable; Johnson’s story is testament to that fact. From the stripping of Olympic medals from Tommie Smith and John Carlos to the incarceration of and stripping of boxing titles from Muhammad Ali, engaging in the political as a Black athlete was a form of social suicide that impacted far more than one’s ability to participate in sport. The great irony of this American tragedy is that in divorcing himself from his racial history, O.J. set himself up for a moral fall; holding onto it or daring to embrace it may have prevented his rise altogether.
It is in this context that I actually disagree with Edelman’s own assessment of his work. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he observed,
“I was pretty focused on what I was doing without any consideration for who was watching it and who would be watching it. I know this is not a film for the quote-unquote ESPN audience; not to denigrate them, but whatever that means, it’s not that much about sports. It is very issue-based and idea-based.”
Sport history has long grappled with the significance of sport as a window into larger questions about race, color, culture, gender, class, sexuality, and nation formation. To say it is about more than sport, denies just how important sport has been to the shaping of Black culture in the eyes of White America and the use of sport by people of color to gain power and access into mainstream society.
To say this story has always been about more than just sport or O.J., while true, puts us in danger of erasing both from the narrative. Yes, this documentary is a critique of America. And it should be. Yes, this documentary is a look at the interplay of race and celebrity in America. And it should be. But it is also the story of a Black male athlete who desired fame and fortune to escape where he came from and in doing so lost/sacrificed far more in the process. To look past O.J. and the sport that defined him hinders us from exploring most fully how race, sport, and celebrity operate through O.J., and how we as individuals are complicit in his rise and fall.
In the end, Edelman grasps this reality. Perhaps it is why he concludes with O.J.’s voice. His perspective. His haunting plea. There is no denying that O.J. was a bad guy. He did bad things to innocent people. And still countless people in the documentary referred to him as generous. ESPN’s Mike Wilbon, in fact, wrote, “In 35 years of covering sports and intersecting with some of the most famous men and women on the planet, nobody has been any better company, more engaging, a better storyteller or more accommodating than Simpson.”
Edelman allows O.J. to speak last, and to ask, “Please remember me as the Juice, please remember me as a good guy.” Many people will not. But in allowing him to speak, Edelman calls for us to consider the complexity of the human experience, of the Black athletic experience, and the social constructions that confine us. In allowing the history to speak, Edelman calls for us to consider the complexity of the American experience and the interplay of the personal and the popular in informing one’s access to and desire for power. In doing so, he shows how interconnected we – Black and White – actually are. Yes, we, as Americans, helped make O.J. the Juice. We as football fans may be uncomfortable with a tie, and even less comfortable with a loss. In the end, though, his loss is also 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. Using the University of Miami football team of the mid-1980s as a case study, her work deconstructs the facile Black/White binary of traditional studies of the New Right and argues that scholars of the Right, and post-1968 political realignments, must pay attention to the Global South to appreciate how Reagan’s narrative was articulated in response to and through images of a multiracial, multicultural, multilingual, and urban cast. 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 (2005; Go Tigers!). She currently supports her local professional soccer team, Indy Eleven, with her husband and children. Kate can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.