Photo by Mickey Osterreicher

‘O.J. – Made in America’: Race, TV, and All Kinds of Heartbreak

This film offers a remarkable analysis of US systems of race, media, and justice that to this day seem to be turning more complex and less flexible.

“Five long months. [The US election] promises to be the O.J. Simpson trial of politics: It goes on and on, polarizing the country — yet although you can’t stand it, you just can’t stop watching. It will be a cash cow for cable news networks and launch the careers of dozens of irritating TV commentators. Isn’t that great?”

“Is There Any Dignity Left in Politics?” by Arthur C. Brooks and Gail Collins, 21 June 2016

“I was heartbroken by it. O. J., what are you doing?” You can believe that Carl Douglas was heartbroken when he was O. J. Simpson’s 2008 arrest in Las Vegas on TMZ. Throughout O. J.: Made in America, Douglas defends the Dream Team of 1994, the lawyers who made the case against the LAPD. He was 39 years old at the time, working for O. J. on television, as he recalls it, as well as working with Johnnie Cochran, whom he and lots of other people admired for standing up against police corruption. As he saw the prosecutors defining his client as “the boogie man”, Douglas contends, the defense fought back. “We played the credibility card,” he says, “We played the evidence card, man.”

Credibility and evidence continue to shape the O.J. Simpson epic, no matter which of its many sides you might believe. This is exactly the trouble — for this case and the nation that produced it — according to Ezra Edelman’s magnificent documentary series, now streaming on ESPN. Juxtaposing images and interviews, revelations and old news, the film makes clear repeatedly that people base their beliefs on what they see, but what they see is inevitably framed by experiences and expectations.

That framing is the film’s focus. This, rather than the evidence that might seem scientific or the credibility that might be persuasive. O. J.: Made in America tenaciously sets the trial within historical contexts and today’s consequences. Just so, it’s telling that the film shows Douglas’ response to the news of Simpson’s 2008 arrest just after the story shows up on TMZ. The O. J. story inspired a rise of tabloid-ism that yet resonates across the current media landscape, from sensationalist sports and movies to what Arthur C. Brooks describes as the “smallness of our politics”.

You feel that smallness everywhere in the O. J. story. For all the expansive reflecting it encourages regarding cultural and political panoramas, it features as well tragically limited vision and responsibility. The smallness is preceded, of course, by ambition and hope. Before the Bronco chase and the cameras in the courtroom, the celebrity of Kato Kalin and Johnnie Cochran’s rhymes, the film charts O. J.’s ascendance, and in particular the media celebration of Heisman Trophy winner and the record-breaking professional (Peter Hyams remembers, “He was like Baryshnikov: when we see those people, they are special, they can do stuff that other people can’t do”) and the Sports Illustrated cover (by my father, Bernie Fuchs). Rather than join in protests (“The whole idea of the Olympic Project for Human Rights,” says Harry Edwards, “was to escalate the relationship between athletes and community”; Simpson resisted, saying he didn’t want to be seen as black), Simpson pitched product for Hertz and Chevrolet. His business agent David Lockton explains, “It was clear once you spent some time with O. J. that the Carlos fist pump and those kinds of situations were not going to be present in dealing with him. He just gave you that confidence that he understood what this was about.”

Simpson’s enormous popularity was a function of leaving behind what he saw as limited options as a child in San Francisco (“As a kid growing up in the ghetto,” he says in an archival interview, “one of the things I wanted most was not money, but fame, for people to say, ‘There goes O. J.'”) and racism that he devised to transcend rather than contest. As sports journalist Robert Lipsyte puts it, “O. J. Simpson was the counterrevolutionary athlete white America is looking for, somebody who can erase the threat of the seemingly angry principled black athletes who can create a revolution in sports. O. J. made people feel good.”

That good feeling dissipates when Simpson is accused of murdering Nicole and Ron Goldman, even as the media coverage accelerates. As the film shows scads of reporters in the courthouse and on the street outside, Tom Rosenstiel of the Los Angeles Times remembers, “We have lost sight of giving people the news in terms of its significance. We’re giving it to them in terms of what we think is the most titillating and the most ratings-grabbing.” As most everyone knows now, the defense team embraces the black community’s endless and endlessly warranted distrust of the LAPD, making full use of media attention to whip up that community’s support outside the courtroom. (It’s a distrust the film sets up early, with histories and images drawn from Dragnet, the Watts riots (“The police responded with too much force and not enough understanding,” observes Walter Mosley), and the Rodney King uprising.

For some interviewees, this strategy is only intelligent, although interviews with Marcia Clark and Gil Garcetti, not to mention Fred Goldman and Tanya Brown, make clear their increasing frustrations as the prosecution, so sure of the science of their argument, are unable to break through. Day by day, over eight-and-a-half months, the evidence comes undone, mostly because it turns less credible. As prosecutor Bill Hodgman says, “This was a case about blood, that was the heart of the case”, you see photo after photo of blood drops, on walks, on cars, on gates, on Simpson’s Rockingham floor, on the glove. You might be thinking you’ve seen these photos before, and you know how badly this part of the argument goes, what with Dennis Fung looking incompetent and Mark Fuhrman using the n-word.

None of this prepares you for the film’s other photos of blood, the ones introduced by Ron Shipp, a former LA police officer and friend of O. J. and Nicole. “All of a sudden, you look at some pictures of somebody you actually know. I looked at those pictures,” he asserts, “It changed me, it changed me.” He frames these stunning pictures of Nicole’s body, her neck cut open to expose her spine by remembering that he’d already told prosecutor Chris Darden that he wouldn’t testify against his friend. After seeing these photos, he reports, he chose to speak out for Nicole. Seeing these photos, so many years and so many cynical responses later, you can still imagine how they might have changed Ron Shipp.

His testimony, however, leads to his own smearing by the defense team, as Douglas questions his character and motivation. It’s a moment that seems almost beside the point, except as it repeats what’s done to every other prosecution witness. O. J. is here remade in America, his victory a function of gamesmanship and spectacle. The Los Angeles Times‘ Jim Newton observes of Simpson’s reaction to the verdict, pictured here. For an instant, Simpson resembles his former self. “That’s a competitor,” says Newton, “He had been through a hard ordeal and he won.”

What’s been won, however, is almost instantly costly for those who support Simpson, and later for Simpson himself. Activist and real estate developer Danny Bakewell articulates a point echoed by others, that the not-guilty verdict is “payback”, not just for the Rodney King verdicts but also, “for what’s happened the last 400 years, payback for the way black people are treated in America. I believe that that was on the minds of every black person in America.” For a moment, it might appear as if this case has been about justice, has even achieved justice, but no one interviewed seems quite convinced.

The fifth and final part of the series focuses on O. J. after the “incident,” as Wendy Williams calls it during Simpson’s radio show visit. Thus you see, in a montage of sorts, the freed O. J. summarily rejected by the white folks with whom he once circulated: a Brentwood neighbor describes people taunting him at a service station, Peter Hyams recalls an accidental encounter where both knew they’d never see one another again, and his former agent Mike Gilbert says he told Simpson, “White America, they will zip up your nigger suit on you so fast and they will forget about you like that.” Instead, Simpson spends time with black people, at churches especially. For a time, says minister Mark Whitlock, “People were on fire excited” that the “criminal justice system worked in favor of an African American man.” But, he adds, the result wasn’t that at all, but instead, “it was a victory for a rich guy named O. J. Simpson and I was troubled by that.”

The rest of Simpson’s saga — his move to Florida, his golf outings, his partying, and at last, his indescribably bad decision in Las Vegas — appears here in short order, but in terms that are no less complex. People touched by the murders and the trial reveal their continuing concerns about it, about their parts in it. To this end, they’re still guessing at what makes Simpson go, and in turn, how they have been changed by their crossed paths. Not all are changed so profoundly as Ron Shipp or Fred Goldman, but everyone is changed.

It thus makes sense that Carl Douglas helps to bring the documentary to a close, as he sees in Simpson’s story a reflection of himself. Wondering, as he has, how O. J. could have let him down, how he might feel heartbroken, he finds in their pasts a shared experience. Once an “inner city” high school student like Simpson, Douglas sees reasons for his former client’s actions at the Palace Station hotel in Vegas, when he tried to rover some of his personal “memorabilia” with a crew of thugs and a gun, and was then sentenced to 33 years in prison, another sort of payback (and so loyal friend Joe Bell declares, “That is white justice in America, man”). Douglas explains, “He’s street. And O. J. regrettably reverted back to Galileo High School, you know, he reverted back to earn his point.” That is, he behaved like a kid who had nothing to lose, who had to fight for everything, who had no faith in any kind of system to help him.

The explanation doesn’t begin to solve this puzzle. Moreover, while there’s no end of ironies in O. J.: Made in America, this one is especially daunting. For you’ve seen that Simpson worked any number of systems brilliantly, wielding his gifts and his talents in order to change his horizon. He succeeded in college and professional football, he made his way through Hollywood and corporate America, he cultivated networks and contracts, fans and friends. Writer Sylvester Monroe speaks of regret, for trusting in O. J., as well as in the system he sought to overcome: “A lot of people gave a lot, but ultimately, it was all a waste. He wasn’t deserving.”

The film illustrates Monroe’s lament, a long shot of mountains and desert and sky. “O. J. reached the top of the mountain and when he fell off it,” Monroe goes on. “But it should not reflect on black people at all. It should reflect on O.J.” With that, the film offers a close up shot in that desert, a crushed and weather-beaten Coke can. The product, pitched and consumed, at once grim and mundane.

RATING 9 / 10