In Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, Mookie, a delivery man played by Lee himself, has a brief argument with Pino, the racist older son of his employer, the owner of Sal’s Pizza. Unlike his father, Pino has no hesitation about voicing his contempt for black people, but Mookie has already noticed a contradiction in the way he thinks. “Who’s your favorite basketball player?” he asks. “Magic Johnson,” Pino quickly responds. “Who’s your favorite movie star?” Mookie says. “Eddie Murphy,” Pino answers without hesitation. “And who’s your favorite rock star?” Mookie adds. By this time Pino is beginning to catch on. “Bruce,” he says. ”It’s Bruce,” but Mookie knows he’s lying. “It’s Prince,” he sighs impatiently. “It’s Prince. Pino all you ever talk about is nigger this and nigger that, but all your favorite people are so-called niggers.” Few things are more revealing about the culture of the 1980s than Pino’s clumsy attempt to explain away Mookie’s argument. “It’s different,” he says. “Magic, Eddie, Prince, they’re not niggers. I mean they’re not black. “Let me explain myself,” he continues. “They’re not really black. I mean they’re black but they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.”
Orenthal James, O.J. Simpson, who was born in public housing projects in pre-gentrified San Francisco in 1947, is one of the greatest running backs ever to play football. The 1968 winner of the Heisman Trophy, he led the University of Southern California to the National Championship. After a rocky start in the NFL under Buffalo Bills head coach John Rauch, who tried to fit him into a system that wasted his talents, he thrived under Rauch’s replacement Lou Saban, rushing for 2003 thousand yards in 1973, and breaking the all time record set by Jim Brown the decade before. Watching old highlight films of Simpon playing for USC or the Buffalo Bills is a bit like opening the pages of an ancient Greek epic and reading about a demi-god. Simpson is 6’2” and 210 pounds, which is already big for a running back, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, but when he finds a hole in the opposing teams defense he becomes almost superhuman, impossible to catch, let alone tackle. Many great athletes struggle after they retire from professional sports. Simpson seemed to be an exception, getting out of the NFL only a little after his prime, and begining his career as a successful actor, corporate pitchman and man about town in star studded Hollywood. You can still see traces of his charisma in the commericals he did for Hertz Rent a Car in the 1970s. He’s anthing about a dumb jock. On the contrary, he comes off like any other graduate of the elite University of Southern California, smooth talking, quick thinking, urbane, intellectual.
If you had met O.J. Simpson in the early 1980s, you probably would have decided he would become more like Bill Bradley, the basketball star who became a United States Senator, then Lawrence Taylor, the New York Giants Linebacker who fell into alcholism, drug addiction and despair. If you had been Mookie from Do the Right Thing, however, you might have noticed something different, that O.J. Simpson had spent his life trying to win the approval of people like Sal’s racist son Pino. Back in the late 1960s, when African American athletes were beginning to assert themselves politically, Simpson refused to make even a token gesture of support. Unlike Muhammad Ali, who joined the Nation of Islam and resisted the draft, or John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who gave their iconic black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics, Orenthal James Simpson did not consider himself part of the new generation of race conscious African Americans, but rather, to quote Pino, “more than black.” In a sense, he was the Michael Jordan or the 1960s and 1970s, the superstar athlete who cares more about his TV commercials and his stock portfolio than about the people back home in the projects. Jordan, however, who was born in the 1960s, did not carry around the same emotional baggage as Simpson, who was born in the 1940s. Michael Jordan had the luxury of remaining apolitical because of the radical black athletes who came before him. Simpson did not have that privilege.
O.J.: Made in America is more than just a biography of a great athlete who fell from grace. It’s a broad, wide ranging history of race relations in the city of Los Angeles. When as USC’s star running back, O.J. Simpson declared that “I’m not black. I’m O.J.,” he probably couldn’t have done it anywhere else in the United States. Los Angeles was more than just a northern city, a Chicago or a New York, where black people from the south moved n the 1940s and 1950s to escape the Jim Crow South. It was the epicenter of the American Dream, the great metropolis where you could not only escape Jim Crow but escape from American history altogether. Simpson was hardly the first man in Hollywood to dream about becoming more than the sum of his parts. The film industry, after all, was founded by Eastern European Jews. They not only dreamed of being real Americans, but reinvented what it means to be a “real American.” Simpson was squarely in their tradition, and by 1985 he seemed to have achieved his goal. He had discarded his first wife for Nicole Brown, a tall blond Aryan out of central casting. He had turned his Brentwood Estate “Rockingham” into a social center for the Hollywood elite. He was friends with the Kardashians before the Kardashians were the Kardashians. He imagined himself as the President of a major film studio.
From the very beginning, however, something was clearly wrong. In the Fall of 1985, only a few months after he formally married Nicole Brown – they had been dating years before that – the LAPD responded to a domestic violence call at his Rockingham estate. He was already beating her. In some ways, O.J.: Made in America is about seven hours too long. Orenthal James Simpson is really just another wife beater, an egotistical control freak who makes himself the king of his castle and the lord and master over his wife. “O.J. thought he owned Nicole,” one of his friends says in a revealing and provocative moment. “It was kind of like a reverse slavery.” White domestic abusers act pretty much the way O.J. Simpson did. They get away with what they can, which, if the husband is rich or well-connected, is usually quite a bit. The violence escalates until the wife either leaves for good, or she ends up either a broken shell of a woman, or dead. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the racial undercurrent in the marriage of O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown. For O.J., possessing Nicole had finally let him convince himself that he was “more than black,” that white America had not only accepted him as a man, but as a white man. As Simpson declined into middle-age, however, and as relations between the LAPD and black Los Angeles reached their breaking point during the Rodney King affair, it became more and more difficult to maintain the illusion that he was “not black but O.J.” Mark Fuhrman, the police officer who responded to the domestic violence call in 1985, a racist who had fantasies of killing black men, would soon play an out-sized role in O.J. Simpson’s life.
O.J.: Made in America pulls no punches when it comes to the photos taken of the murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, a friend who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. We see them again and again. We examine the gruesome images more and more closely each time until we finally linger on the large, gaping holes in Goldman’s and Brown’s neck. It’s impossible not to try to imagine what the murder itself looked like. Ron Goldman was a young man, twenty five years old, over six feet tall. He was fit and went to the gym, but O.J. Simpson had reverted back to a demonic version of the superman he had been when he played for the Buffalo Bills and the University of Southern California. No longer able to deny that he was black, and middle-aged, forty six years of repressed, murderous anger burst through the carefully constructed walls of repression and denial like the water breaching the New Orleans dykes after Hurricane Katrina. If Simpson had spent his life trying to be “more than black” in order to win the approval of white America, he had at long last become white America’s deepest fear, the black brute who kills a white woman. After a lifetime pretending he was Jackie Robinson or Sydney Poitier, he had become Bigger Thomas.
Or did he?
Did O.J. Simpson really kill his wife on the night of June 17, 1994? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know, and if I had been on the jury for the O.J. Simpson murder trial, I would have certainly voted “not guilty.” I don’t even think he should be in jail today. The civil trial was a kind of “double jeopardy” and the thirty-three-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping in 2007 that’s effectively sent him to jail for the rest of the his life was absurd. Anybody else would have gotten a year or two, if that. I never really followed the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s, but it’s breathtaking to watch O.J.: Made in America and to see the prosecution’s case fall apart. The documentary contends that the evidence was overwhelming, that Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, and Judge Lance Ito simply mishandled the case, but there’s no question that F. Lee Bailey and Johnny Cochran succeeded in raising “reasonable doubt” about Simpson’s guilt. The black people who cheered his acquittal weren’t cheering on a man who got away with murder so much as they were cheering on a black man who had finally gotten a fair trial. The white people crying over Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman weren’t crying for two people they had never met, but over the way the criminal justice system had finally begun to work the way it was supposed to work. To quote that tedious social media cliché, “when you’re used to privilege, equality begins to feel like oppression.” O.J. Simpson may or may not be a murderer, but there’s no question that he was “not guilty.”
Perhaps the most fascinating moment in O.J.: Made in America comes halfway through the third segment. The incompetent judge Lance Ito has allowed the mostly black jury – O.J. Simpson got a jury of his peers, but Nicole Brown Simpson didn’t – to tour Simpson’s Rockingham estate. Simpson’s lawyers – who had based their defense partly on the idea that Simpson was now a hero to the black community in Los Angeles – had redecorated the house with whatever photos they could find showing him with other black people. One of the pictures they remove is a portrait of Simpson with Donald Trump. Trump and Simpson were never friends. The photo had been taken at a press conference at the opening of the Harley Davidson Cafe in New York City, but there’s a deep cultural affinity between the two men. Along with Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996, the O.J. Simpson murder trial represents the decisive break with the media landscape of the 1970s and 1980s, the moment when the cable news networks dropped all pretense of acting like journalists and started acting like entertainers. If O.J. Simpson was, in a sense, the beginning of “Reality TV,” then the election of Donald Trump is President is its logical outcome. O.J.: Made in America, which got a well-deserved academy award for Best Documentary, shows us how it all happened.