‘I’m not black, I’m O. J.’
June 17, 2016 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Why ‘Transcending Race’ Is a Lie [The New York Times] Few American athletes have been as widely beloved as Simpson was. Even today, his popularity seems inconceivable. “O. J.: Made in America,” the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary [ESPN] directed by Ezra Edelman that is airing this week, busies itself with the making of the man at the myth’s center and with the country that helped him become a monster. It’s the best thing ESPN has ever produced. And it answers my question: Simpson’s story is that of a black man who came of age during the civil rights era and spent his entire adult life trying to “transcend race” — to claim that strange accolade bestowed on blacks spanning from Pelé to Prince to Nelson Mandela to Muhammad Ali. Which is to say, it’s the story of a halfback trying, and failing, to outrun his own blackness.

Related:

- O.J. Made in America: The Patient Zero of Athlete Privilege [ESPN]
At the center of the film is O.J. Simpson and the double-homicide trial that captivated the nation, but there is a much larger story, a much more profound goal. Not just to understand the case, or even Simpson himself, but to understand America -- the America that helped make him and, eventually, unravel him. An America that is still, so many years later, pained by the same issues of class, race, police brutality, domestic violence and fame. The issues of entitlement, fame and domestic violence are especially compelling now, as the country is experiencing an enlightenment of sorts when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault. After so many years of ignoring or downplaying the insidiousness of violence against women, there seems to be a bit of a sea change in terms of acknowledgement. A few very high-profile cases have certainly helped create more widespread awareness and conversation.
- New 5-Part Series Considers The 'Perfect Perversity' Of The O.J. Simpson Case [NPR]
Ezra Edelman: So it's that climate in which O.J. came to prominence, and when O.J. was approached by the end of 1967 by a guy named Harry Edwards, who was a sociologist and an activist and a professor at San Jose State, he had organized something called the Olympic Project for Human Rights, where he really wanted black athletes at the time to be closer aligned to the civil rights movement, to the struggle, and he approached O.J. to be a part of it. He wanted athletes to boycott the '68 [Olympic] games in Mexico City, and when O.J. was approached — O.J. was also a track star at the time, not just a football star — O.J.'s response famously was, "I'm not black. I'm O.J."

Now, what O.J. really was saying was, Look, I have an ambition for myself. I'm looking to be famous, I'm looking to be rich, and I'm looking to be loved by everyone. And being political, being outspoken and seeing the way America at that time responded to people like Ali, like Jim Brown, like Bill Russell, these were scary figures, culturally. And so I think O.J. knew that to get what he wanted to get, he couldn't be that. He was going to blaze his own trail and that's what he did. Before he'd even play ... in the NFL, there he was on TV, hawking Chevrolets and RC Cola. He chose a different path, and that path was followed by the likes of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
- Retired L.A.P.D. police officer Ron Shipp opens up about how he knows Simpson is guilty. [Vanity Fair]
She knew I taught domestic violence. She told me it happened on several occasions. She showed me pictures of past batteries that [her sister] Denise had taken. I came back the following night to bring back pamphlets to read to her. Everything that I said about the batterers, she said, “Wow, that’s O.J. This is what he does. This is how he is.” Here I am, one moment, thinking this is the best couple in the world. Here I am looking at my big hero, and she starts telling me how jealous he was. She told me a story about Tom Cruise. She mentioned to O.J. that she thought Tom Cruise was handsome. After she told him that, she wasn’t allowed to mention his name ever again or go to his movies. Here again, I was like, “What! This is O.J.” O.J., of course, told me a totally different story. He denied everything.
- O.J.: Made in America Is Vital Storytelling [The Atlantic]
Twenty-one years after the jury’s not-guilty verdicts in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, the O.J. show has never quite left the airwaves. Most recently, February brought FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, a stunning dramatization of the case starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Courtney B. Vance, John Travolta, and Sarah Paulson. So it’s reasonable to wonder what further depths could be plumbed from the whole affair—the collapse of a seeming slam-dunk of a conviction that unfolded on TV like the first major reality show? Quite a lot, as it turns out. O.J.: Made in America can be an heartbreaking viewing experience, but it explores its subject with incredible length, breadth, intelligence, and sensitivity. The eight-hour running time might seem daunting, especially coming only a few months after The People v. O.J.’s 10-episode run. But O.J.: Made in America is somehow even more engrossing than its fictionalized counterpart, meticulously fleshing out not only the details of the trial, but also the larger stories of race, celebrity, and misogyny that intersected around Simpson. This is a film that takes four hours before it even gets to the Brown/Goldman killings while still feeling relatively brisk—it’s a sports documentary, a true-crime work, and a searing history of America’s institutional racism wrapped up in one.
Previously.
posted by Fizz (42 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm really been enjoying this documentary, but I do wish it had spent more time contexualizing his marriage to his first wife. Was he physically abusive even at that young age? What kind of marriage was it? It seems like an important piece of the puzzle.

That said, as someone young enough that OJ Simpson is only famous because of the murder trial, the documentary has been very informative.
posted by Automocar at 2:24 PM on June 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


wtfpod episode 714 from June 9 has an interview with Edelman.
posted by morganw at 2:25 PM on June 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this post. We've seen the first three parts of the documentary so far, and have found them really interesting. My partner was an adult who worked from home at the time, and I was in middle school, so we have very different memories of the entire trial. We've really "enjoyed" (if that's the right word) this documentary. A lot of the other cases it explores, like the deaths of Eula Love and Latasha Harlins, we had never heard of. I am glad to know their names now.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:26 PM on June 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson, HBO's All the Way, History's Roots reboot, and now ESPN with O.J. Made in America.... there is some amazing television happening. And all of it placing a close lens on issues of: race, crime, feminism, masculinity, power, civil liberty, blackness, fame, etc.
posted by Fizz at 2:29 PM on June 17, 2016 [4 favorites]


The weird thing is, I get the logic behind the statement that Prince "transcended race"--during his classic period he was writing about subjects to which White people could relate (sex and love) in a way that White people could relate to them. In the early/mid 1980s, rock music was predominantly an old White dude genre, where hip hop and R&B were coded as Black music.

I absolutely and wholeheartedly reject the logic behind this statement, but I understand why it's a talking point WRT Prince.
posted by pxe2000 at 2:34 PM on June 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


Some people might feel that having watched the FX series, The People v OJ Simpson, that they have had their fill of all things related to O.J. Simpson. This ESPN docu-series is larger in scope and touches on many issues that were not addressed with that mini-series. I think they both have value but ESPN is placing O.J. Simpson in a larger cultural and societal context. The FX series touches on similar issues of race, blackness, crime, violence, etc. but they are focused through the lens of the criminal justice system.
posted by Fizz at 2:51 PM on June 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


I heard an interview with some of the people behind the documentary on NPR a couple of days ago. What really interested me was the commentary on Simpson's conviction and sentencing for the "nothing" crime that happened in Vegas in 2007. From the interview, emphasis mine:
Toobin: I don't think he would've even been prosecuted [in 2008] had he not been O.J. Simpson. I think as someone who is supposed to believe in the criminal justice system that it's an outrage he's in prison at all for that crime. ... I don't stay up at night feeling terrible about the injustice, but it was a bogus case from top to bottom and the sentence was insane.
I remember thinking at the time that Simpson deserved what he got, but that interview made me question my own ethics. Not enough to lay awake at night, but certainly enough to make me re-examine some of my beliefs about the criminal justice system.
posted by xyzzy at 2:53 PM on June 17, 2016 [4 favorites]


Does anyone else remember this cover of WIRED from during the trial, where they depict him as a white man? I certainly do. I don't think I have my copy of that anymore, though.
posted by hippybear at 3:25 PM on June 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


hippybear, I remember the scandal over the Time cover.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:31 PM on June 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


Does anyone else remember this cover of WIRED from during the trial, where they depict him as a white man?

More specifically, John Travolta.
posted by tallthinone at 3:37 PM on June 17, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm not really enjoying the documentary but I loved and learned a lot from The People vs. O.J. Simpson. The documentary (I think I made it about halfway through episode 2 just kind of feels like tabloidy TV to me. The man lived a celebrity tabloid life so that has to be the lens to some degree, but I just feel weird seeing all this coverage from the era he was idolized. I may try skipping ahead a few episodes to see if I feel differently and then come back later.

The one shocking thing to me was just how magnetic he does come off on TV. I watched him a little bit when I was a kid watching football but I was too young to appreciate who he was or anything. He often comes off as much more magnetic and likable than Cuba Gooding, Jr. was able to portray. I can see why the real OJ could convince friends to believe he was innocent, but it was harder with the actor in the role. Though, obviously the show focused on a very different time in OJ's life.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:51 PM on June 17, 2016


"He often comes off as much more magnetic and likable than Cuba Gooding, Jr. was able to portray."

There were aspects of Gooding's portrayal of OJ that I liked, as a different interpretation of the character "OJ Simpson". But otherwise I felt that he captured almost nothing of the most important and relevant qualities of OJ, which were his charisma and how threatening he could be. It was the one constant problem I had with what I thought was otherwise a remarkable piece of quality television.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:58 PM on June 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


The documentary has been fascinating to me, mostly because I only really knew O.J. Simpson as a comedic actor and as a man charged with a murder. O.J. Simpson as a football star who made grown men giddy with joy, that's not the O.J. Simpson that I was familiar with. So the documentary has been very beneficial in exploring that earlier part of his life, the part of his life that gave him such access to wealth, fame, power, racial transgression, etc.

Maybe I'm in the minority, but I find myself enjoying the documentary series more than the FX mini-series. The focus is broader and I'm learning more about O.J. Simpson as a person, as well as the celebrity and sports culture of that time.
posted by Fizz at 4:00 PM on June 17, 2016 [4 favorites]


I interviewed him not long after he married Nichole, and like many other journalists, came away exhilarated. "This is the greatest guy in the world!" I was a nobody, but he used my name over and over in the best Dale Carnegie fashion, fed me usable quotes and "insider" anecdotes, and pretty much handed me the article on a plate. And I'm not even a sports guy, or someone who idolizes athletes. I used to love the "Naked Gun" movies, but now I can't watch them any more.
posted by Modest House at 4:29 PM on June 17, 2016 [29 favorites]




I've also been thinking about what it must be like for Nicole Brown and Ron Pearlman's family members to have to re-experience these stories all over again. I know that much of the focus has been on how O.J. Simpson fell from grace as well as the racial politics of America, but it still cannot be easy to have to see his face on screen again. I cannot imagine that pain.

I realize that my watching the miniseries and receiving some form of "entertainment" from my viewing, makes me partly complicit in the exploitation of this story.
posted by Fizz at 4:38 PM on June 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, and I also found it odd that the third part went into the murder and the Nicole/OJ relationship in depth but barely mentioned Ron Goldman at all, aside from like a 2-minute long "he was a good guy and we all loved him". Plus a bit that basically said "he was this waiter who went to the house to return glasses and got horribly murdered."

Like, that's what really makes it terrifying to me: Simpson was so enraged that he brutally murdered a complete stranger just because he happened to be there.
posted by Automocar at 5:52 PM on June 17, 2016 [7 favorites]


Not sure if I've said it before, but I'm consistently surprised that any conversation about OJ doesn't now include some discussion of traumatic brain injury (TBI) or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is inextricably linked to today's NFL. I'm not sure if it's because his career was years before any of that ever came to light or because he didn't play a position that was known to commonly have issues, but damn if it wouldn't seem out of place (though still horrific) in the gaggle of stories we have about current and former players suffering from these disorders. It's the first thing I think every time I see his face..."I wonder if his brain is destroyed or he's just an evil fuck?"
posted by nevercalm at 6:07 PM on June 17, 2016 [16 favorites]


A running back in the era he played in? Yup. It's absolutely a possibility. Running back is one of the positions that takes the most toll on your entire body. Especially when you engage in extreme efforts like going for 2000 yards. I think people understandably don't want to feel like they are offering up excuses for him though. But at the same time, as a football fan that is a deflection of your responsibility to understand the impact of the hobby you engage in.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:22 PM on June 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


Like, that's what really makes it terrifying to me: Simpson was so enraged that he brutally murdered a complete stranger just because he happened to be there.
In that insane special put together in order for Megyn Kelly to make up with Trump, she also interviewed Shapiro. He said something very curious. After a cryptic statement about the difference between moral justice and legal justice he said he was quite surprised that the police never investigated the possibility that more than one attacker might have been present at the murder scene. The whole interview was incredibly cagey (and rightfully so, because attorney-client privilege) but I still found his intimations fascinating.
posted by xyzzy at 6:38 PM on June 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


There's a clip of him falling hard enough to lose his helmet during a game.
posted by brujita at 8:05 PM on June 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


My mother was GLUED to the trial. She drove me nuts discussing it constantly.
I was pretty sure he was guilty and she was pretty sure he was innocent. The trial was non-stop.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:30 PM on June 17, 2016


I wonder about CTE as well--that's what makes me wish they had gone more into his relationship with his first wife. I think it's entirely possible that Simpson has CTE. Not that that excuses the murders, of course.
posted by Automocar at 9:40 PM on June 17, 2016 [1 favorite]




It's highly likely OJ has some CTE. Pretty hard for a backfielder from that era not to, given the state of helmet technology, coaching to shake off concussions, etc. Someone who did something similar could probably raise a very interesting neurological impairment defense ... but of course OJ's nominal defense was that he didn't do it all, not that he didn't have the mental capacity to be guilty of crime while doing it.
posted by MattD at 9:00 AM on June 18, 2016


I also strongly disagree with the notion that he's in wrongly in prison now. If any of us organized and personally led an armed robbery we'd go to prison for a long stretch too. Maybe if OJ had been still been a famous (as opposed to infamous) celebrity he would have gotten off easy, but that's an indictment of a criminal justice system lax on the famous.
posted by MattD at 9:03 AM on June 18, 2016 [3 favorites]


Sort of a tragedy of the commons: even if OJ personally had been capable of "transcending race" on an individual level, racism is a collective, social problem, so he still wouldn't be allowed to be just a person. The fact that he turned out to be a monster anyway might or might not have anything to do with that.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:19 PM on June 18, 2016


I'm on the third episode of the documentary now. It's very, very well done. I found the first episode exceptionally compelling - since I was only 7 years old when he retired from football, I didn't know much of the backstory. (I do vividly remember his Hertz commercials, though - and of course, his roles in the Naked Gun movies.)

I too wonder if he has CTE. I wouldn't be surprised if he does.
posted by SisterHavana at 1:17 PM on June 18, 2016


That Shapiro quote makes me think of the theory that OJ's son did it:

http://theunredacted.com/oj-simpson-a-killer-in-the-family/

Jason had a history of violent outbursts and was diagnosed with IED — ‘Intermittent Explosive Disorder’, a syndrome characterized by extreme outbursts of anger and rage over often trivial matters.

At the time of the murders, Jason was on probation after being arrested for attacking a former employer with a knife.

Two months earlier he violently assaulted Jennifer Green, his then girlfriend. On another occasion, he attacked a former girlfriend and sliced off her hair with a knife.

Jason’s diaries reveal a man tormented by obsessive feelings of violence. One entry reads — “It’s the year of the knife for me. I cut away my problems with a knife. Anybody touches my friends — I will kill them. I’m also tired of being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

posted by imabanana at 6:48 PM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman by himself and it is ridiculous to think otherwise.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:28 PM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Fizz: “Maybe I'm in the minority, but I find myself enjoying the documentary series more than the FX mini-series.”
I didn't care for The People v. O.J. Simpson either. The nuts and bolts of the trial aren't all that interesting. It's not all that different than any of the dozens of other lawyer or cop shows on TV.

On the other hand, O.J.: Made in America is fascinating. It's more than just the story of the trial. It fits Simpson, his career, his marriage to Brown, his history as a batterer, the murders, and the trial into the history of racism in America in general and Los Angeles specifically. I'm very glad I set aside my distaste for the subject and watched it.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:12 PM on June 18, 2016 [4 favorites]


If any of us organized and personally led an armed robbery we'd go to prison for a long stretch too.

Probably not over 30 years.
posted by edeezy at 4:53 AM on June 19, 2016


I binge-watched all eight hours (five episodes) of this the night before last because of this post. It was very, very good.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:26 AM on June 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


I found the documentary more compelling (by far) than the series earlier this year, at least in part because I don't think anyone but Johnny Cochran himself can convey just how brilliant he was. The F. Lee Bailey cross of Mark Fuhrman (human garbage) is also an absolute classic.

After a cryptic statement about the difference between moral justice and legal justice he said he was quite surprised that the police never investigated the possibility that more than one attacker might have been present at the murder scene.

This has long been part of OJ's bogus "and I won't rest until I find the true killers" theory. Frankly I find it disgusting that Bob Shapiro is still out trying to peddle that story. The cop (forget his name) who took viewers step-by-step through his theory of how the murders occurred presented a believable story. OJ Simpson killed both Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
posted by sallybrown at 1:58 PM on June 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is a really remarkable series. It feels like such a story of disappointed hope. Not just in the documentary's overarching tragedy of O.J.'s initial triumph and awful descent, but again and again: In the dream that propelled the Great Migration vs. the reality of black life in Los Angeles; in Nicole's courageous attempt to make a new life for herself after O.J. vs. the reality of her body curled up in that pool of blood; in black euphoria in the wake of the not guilty verdict vs. the reality of ongoing, seemingly unpunishable white brutality against African-Americans. Even watching O.J. waste his miracle of a second chance at a pretty good life, while it felt like a kind of justice, was somehow crushing. Seriously, this documentary made me feel like absolute shit. Highly recommended.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 10:54 PM on June 19, 2016 [6 favorites]


... that strange accolade bestowed on blacks spanning from Pelé to Prince to Nelson Mandela to Muhammad Ali.

A classic example of this comes at the beginning of this clip from Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing, when John Turturro's character tries to argue, about Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince, that "they're not black."
posted by LeLiLo at 1:20 AM on June 20, 2016


Two Astonishing Views of O.J. Simpson and His Trial (nyt): "The two series embody two ways of seeing history, personal versus social, micro versus macro. In one version, these events happened because these people with these characteristics made these choices. In the other, greater forces spanning millions of people and hundreds of years lead to a particular moment."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:09 AM on June 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


I found myself strongly agreeing with that NYT piece. The two shows complement each other. I think each are very well-done and offer an important perspective.

And I strongly disagree with the concern that this is all sensationalist and voyeuristic. The documentary (and the FX series when taken alongside it) is important -- it is really quite remarkable how this story intersects and illustrates the history of institutionalized racism in the US, and in ways that are not necessarily what people are accustomed to. I fear that most white people just won't have the eyes to see what this documentary presents -- notably, it's pretty clear that many of the white people depicted, including all of OJ's white former friends, have totally no clue about the larger social context of the trial and verdict, or (tellingly) even their friendship with OJ.

I also think that the documentary is important for what's absent -- the secondary social context for understanding this story is institutionalized misogyny. I don't think it's the primary context, as Clark did, but it's a big part of the story and the fact that there's another (overlapping) group of people who can't see it through that lens is also telling. The people who see this as simply a double murder and a travesty of justice ... there's a real blindness there.

That said, at the end of the day, it is a double murder and a travesty of justice. The verdict was an insult to Brown and Goldman and their families, their murders were a horror -- Edelman was quite right to feature the crime scenes so prominently because we should never, ever forget those two people and what was done to them that night.

On a much lighter note, one of my favorite moments was when they cut back to the interview with Clark after playing some of the portions of Furhman's tape and she just says, "What the fuck, dude?" in deep exasperation. Through the FX series and two interviews I read with Clark, and this documentary, I think of Clark as a hero. I have nothing but intense respect for her.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:54 AM on June 20, 2016 [6 favorites]


This documentary is the first time I really understood the jury's verdict. When this was on live TV, I didn't have cable and got all my news from NPR or a newspaper. I remember thinking the blood evidence was overwhelming and the jury was being deliberately obtuse. After the initial hour with story after story of how the police terrorized the black community and the bombshell of the tapes proving that Furhman was that kind of racist I can't see how it could have gone any other way.

This is not voyeuristic it is a true tragedy, tragic stories are part of our collective humanity. We learn from them (hopefully).
posted by readery at 12:10 PM on June 20, 2016


the documentary is truly amazing
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 3:50 PM on June 20, 2016


I wasn't going to watch this, out of general distaste and weariness with the casual acceptance of violence against women, but my wife convinced me to. I'm so glad she did. It's excellent, intelligent, insightful - if you're wavering on it because of the subject matter, give it a shot. The contextualization is fascinating.
posted by donnagirl at 6:23 AM on June 21, 2016


It feels like such a story of disappointed hope. Not just in the documentary's overarching tragedy of O.J.'s initial triumph and awful descent, but again and again: In the dream that propelled the Great Migration vs. the reality of black life in Los Angeles; in Nicole's courageous attempt to make a new life for herself after O.J. vs. the reality of her body curled up in that pool of blood; in black euphoria in the wake of the not guilty verdict vs. the reality of ongoing, seemingly unpunishable white brutality against African-Americans. Even watching O.J. waste his miracle of a second chance at a pretty good life, while it felt like a kind of justice, was somehow crushing.

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
posted by sallybrown at 8:51 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


« Older The Happiness Gap   |   The Bushy Tailed Menace Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments