Seriously, I didn’t know it was going to be on, but came across it flipping through the channels. On the heels of the popular The People v. O.J. Simpson, part of the American Crime Story series on the FX network – which I did not see – comes O.J.: Made in America, a sprawling five-part documentary on the cable sports network ESPN.
Many people know about the bizarre low-speed chase of Simpson’s Ford Bronco, Most are aware of the “trial of the century,” an appellation that may very well be correct. At least in the United States, almost EVERYONE had an opinion about the former football player’s guilt or innocence in the murders of his estranged wife Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman.
The most mild-mannered person I have ever known was incensed when Simpson was acquitted of the crimes, as was most of white America. Yet many black Americans literally cheered the verdict. This phenomenon is established fact. What the documentary explains, among many other things, is WHY there was such a disparity in response.
The first segment shows how Simpson went from Heisman-trophy winning running back for the University of Southern California Trojans to stardom in the NFL, becoming the first player ever to rush for 2000 yards in a season. But when Simpson retired from football and returned to Los Angeles, he remained famous, as an actor (The Naked Gun movies), advertising pitch man (Hertz car rental), and broadcasting (Monday Night Football). He met and fell madly in love with a young, blonde, beautiful actress named Nicole Brown.
I loved the second part. It was about the two different versions of Los Angeles, one “wealthy, privileged, and predominantly white. A world where celebrity was power, and where O.J. – race be damned – was one of the most popular figures around… Then there was the other LA, just a few miles away from Brentwood and his Rockingham estate, a place where millions of other black people lived an entirely different reality at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department.” In fact, in describing the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riots that erupted in 1992, the filmmakers spent about a half hour not talking about O.J. at all.
Part 3 was about the murder itself, and the chase, and while I knew much of it, there were details I was unaware of. Part 4 described the trial and the re-Negrofication of Orenthal James Simpson by the defense team. Part 5 detailed all the bizarre stuff after the acquittal, including the book O.J. wrote, If I Did It.
The story was enhanced by the recollections of district attorney Gil Garcetti, lead prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark, LA police detective Mark Fuhrman, LA policeman and Simpson friend Ron Shipp, Ron Goldman’s father Fred, defense attorneys F. Lee Bailey, Carl Douglas, and Barry Schreck, and many other participants. The narrative speaks deftly about the power of celebrity and class, spousal abuse, police/community relations, and racial identity in a way that resonates to this day. I came to the conclusion that: 1) O.J. likely did the murders but that 2) the defense did not make its case, due to the great efforts of the defense team, and some of the rulings of Judge Lance Ito.
I’m glad I watched O.J.: Made In America, though it was quite depressing. The series is available on some streaming services, and no doubt will be available on DVD soon; perhaps it’ll be rerun some day. Ron Shipp believes O.J. Simpson will hate it.