‘O.J.: Made in America’ explores race, celebrity, and the American dream

(Official O.J.: Made in America Facebook Page)

What makes the O.J. Simpson case so fascinating? It has been more than two decades since Simpson was acquitted in the so-called “Trial of the Century,” but he still feels as relevant as ever. Just last winter, the FX show “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” aired to high ratings and much critical acclaim.

Is it that crime stories just fascinate us? Does Simpson’s fall from football hero to pariah make for a good cautionary tale? Maybe there’s comfort in nostalgia?

There is some truth to all of these theories, but after seeing “O.J: Made in America,” I realized what makes Simpson such a captivating figure. Simpson, more than anything, is a product of America and its indiscretions. While the 7.5-hour documentary is about Simpson, it also touches on racism in America and the harsh realities some face as they pursue a comfortable life in America. The film is thought-provoking, haunting and one of the most mesmerizing documentaries made in recent years.

Throughout the film, director Ezra Edelman uses Simpson’s story as a touchstone to talk about America’s history of segregation. With footage and photos, he illustrates the archetypal American dream as Simpson (someone who grew up with the same economic disadvantages as many other Black Americans) pursues success. Yet, he puts Simpson’s personal struggles beside America’s history of racism by also showing the story of the racial tensions that have occurred in Los Angeles since the 1960s.

With amazing editing, Edelman is able to perfectly contrast the world of celebrity that Simpson lived in with the world of civil rights and racism that the rest of Black America dealt with on a day-to-day basis. Edelman accomplishes this by showing footage from Simpson’s perspective and then contrasting it with footage from the perspective of the African-Americans outside of Simpson’s orbit. In one scene in the first part of the film, we see comedian Bob Hope make jokes about Simpson at the University of Southern California amidst the announcement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder.

However, as Simpson gets to bask in the glow of his success, he loses his identity. When Simpson is asked to be a civil rights activist, he refuses. To him, image and fame are everything. We see at a young age that Simpson’s goal was to be famous. He even tells his friends that someday their kids will look up to him. He believes that in order for him to be successful he needs to be seen as more than just Black. His motto, after all, was “I’m not black. I’m O.J.”

The more successful Simpson became, the more he ingratiated himself with the wealthy, white community in Southern California, even marrying a white woman named Nicole Brown – a marriage that would infamously end in tragedy.

In addition we see how, because of his celebrity (which persists even today), he was treated differently by the media than other Black men who have stood accused of a violent crime.

We see the two sides of Simpson – the warm and charming guy that the public sees on TV, and the narcissistic, egomaniacal wife-abuser who always got what he wanted because of the sheer, often violent, force of his personality.

The stories come together when Simpson is charged with the murder of Brown and Ronald Goldman. While a majority of white Americans believe he is guilty due to the mountains of evidence against him, most of Black America believes he is innocent because of their distrust of the police and the justice system in general. Simpson’s defense team then decides to use the Los Angeles Police Department’s history of racism to smear the evidence against him. In an ironic twist, Simpson’s defense is trying to convey him as a Black victim of Los Angeles’ racist justice system, when for decades he had done everything in his power to shed his Black identity.

We also learn a lot from those who are interviewed in the film. These include interviews with Simpson’s former friends, LAPD officers and others connected to the film’s central figure. Two interviewees that stand out are Joe Bell, one of Simpson’s childhood friends, who talked about what Simpson was like when he was younger, and a juror who confesses that the jury acquitted Simpson partly as payback for Rodney King–a victim of police brutality whose attackers were never punished.

As someone who knew quite a bit about Simpson and the trial beforehand, I was shocked by how much more to the story there was under the surface. On the surface, Simpson’s story is a tragedy about someone who fell from being a celebrated icon to an infamous outcast, but the reality is much more complicated.

His tale contains multitudes. We can understand that he was the victim of white supremacist police officers who planted evidence to build their case, while still seeing him as an unrepentant murderer who wiggled out of the consequences of his actions. But when you look deeper, his story is a mirror of America’s fundamental faults. As the title states, America made O.J. Simpson.

Jon Ho can be reached at jho@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @jonathanho77.

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