O.J., image by Irene Koronas
O.J. Simpson’s Los Angeles
Ezra Edelman’s five-part (7½ hour) documentary film O.J.: Made in America, now streaming on ESPN and available for downloading on amazon.prime, opens with a wide-angle shot of a highway in the Nevada desert: we hear a voice we soon know to be O.J. Simpson’s, telling us, “For a kid growing up in the ghetto, the thing I wanted most was not money, it was fame. I wanted people to say “Hey, there goes O.J!” The film score-- dramatic and darkly melodic—composed by Gary Lionelli comes on and we see a sign on the left, “Lovelock Correctional Center.” The camera cuts to a room inside the yellow concrete walls and barred windows of the prison where two white parole officers, a man and a woman, are conducting a hearing. “You’re approaching five years now,” the man says to a puffy aging O.J., barely recognizable as his former self, “tell us about your work assignments. How have you been occupying your time since you’ve come here?” Simpson, in loose black prison shirt, responds very politely, “When I first came here I was a porter, which comprised cleaning the unit I was in, and then, after a relatively short time, I started working as a gym worker. I’d start each day disinfecting the work-out equipment in the gym and mopping the floors with the rest of the group of us. I also coached teams and I’d like to say we won the championship!” And he gives one of his old ingratiating smiles. But the parole officers remain stony-faced. “The first time you were arrested was in 1994 when you were 46, is that correct?” asks the woman. O.J. is confused: does she mean for the crime of burglary and armed robbery (for his trophies and memorabilia) that had put him in jail five years ago? And then he realizes she means the Other Arrest—the one for the possible murder of his wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. Yes, he was forty-six. And the narrative now flashes back to the beginning of the story—1967, the year O.J. Simpson arrives at USC, having won a football scholarship, and becomes the legendary star.
The parole hearing makes for a heartbreaking moment, and indeed I found the entire film—a documentary film as poetically structured as the most formal artwork--to be heartbreaking. No poem, no novel, no work of art of any kind I’ve witnessed this past year has moved me as has this film. For Edelman’s O.J, a character carefully constructed from documentary footage and recent interviews—interviews composed so that one never sees the interviewer and pays full attention to the words of the person questioned—emerges as a truly heroic figure, a great man who is undone by a crime of passion. Had O.J. confessed to the double murder, he might have been redeemed. Had he committed suicide like Othello, whom he resembles in many ways, he would have become a folk hero. But because he manages to go free and to continue to lie his way out of the crime, he becomes a pariah, first to the white community that had adopted him as a kind of mascot and later to some of his black friends as well. And so he is now serving what may turn out to be a lifetime sentence for a petty robbery that normally warrants a year or two in jail.
American justice? To make sense of it all, we have to understand that O.J.: Made in America is not primarily about the notorious “trial of the century,” which has been the subject of so many books and films, including the recent Fox TV serial drama, The People vs. O.J. Simpson. In the latter, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s best-seller by that name, the focus is on the defense “Dream Team,” composed of largely unscrupulous celebrity lawyers who, playing the race card, manage to outsmart the weak, vulnerable, and much less affluent prosecution so as to win a Not Guilty verdict for a man everyone knows to be guilty. Rather Edelman’s is a larger study of money and power, racial conflict and injustice in the Los Angeles of the last half century-- --a montage of contradictory images and disparate voices (white, black, rich, poor, football buddies and hangers on, newscasters and Hertz executives, the voice of racist cop Mark Fuhrman and the resonant voice of O.J. himself) creating a narrative so richly textured one cannot fathom its complexity at one viewing.
At the center of the narrative is a young man who, by everyone’s testimony, really is “great—great in that he is, as one of the USC coaches puts it, “one of a kind”: not only does he have a talent no one else quite possesses (at one point O.J’s movements on the football field are compared to Baryshnikov’s dance steps), but he is also beloved by all who know him for his warmth, generosity, good humor, kindness, and constant effort to improve himself. As viewers, we watch entranced as young O.J., a product of the Portero Hills housing projects in San Francisco, whose single mother (his gay father left the family when O.J. was a child), worked the graveyard shift at the local hospital, makes his way from junior college to a football scholarship at USC and onward to fame as the “best college football player in the country.” Not only does O.J. do things “that no one else can do” on the football field; he also charms his teammates and teachers, not to mention the USC coeds, by his polite and friendly demeanor and his good looks. Indeed, O.J. is gorgeous! And he is also very smart, knowing that his football career won’t last forever and so he takes on celebrity endorsements sports broadcasting, and film spots in order to ensure his future career. In every instance, his mission is to be the best. He won’t sign on with Hertz, for example, until he assures himself it’s the best of the rent-a-car dealers. He works hard to reform his ghetto slang so that he can be the best in all he does. And so on.
It’s a true Horatio Alger story with two inevitable dark twists. First, no one, no matter how modest, can be as lionized and crowned as is O.J. without having one’s head turned. “The Juice,” featured on every sports magazine cover and followed by adoring autograph seekers, comes to believe in his own idealized image. Celebrity culture, especially in LA, is cruel and fickle, and the adoration of the crowd cannot last forever. But second—and more important—O.J. is a black man who takes himself to be above race. “I’m not black,” he tells a reporter friend early in the film, “I’m O.J.” And it is this sense of entitlement to white privilege in what is still a highly racist society that is O.J.’s undoing. He conveniently forgets that he is a black man.
In the 1940s, the documentary footage shows us, LA was considered the perfect relocation site for the “southern Negro,” who was repeatedly promised work, happiness, and a home of his own on its sunny streets, dotted by those familiar palm trees. Between 1940 and 1960, we are reminded, while the general population grew by 100%, the black population grew by 600%. By the mid-sixties, when O.J. arrives on the LA scene, this new population is firmly ensconced on the East side, just a few blocks from the USC then all-white campus. Indeed, O.J.’s USC is not far from Watts, where the famed 1965 riots have recently taken place. And it is the time when radicalized black athletes like John Carlos and Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) rebel against the status quo. Indeed, in a display of resistance, Carlos and his circle refuse to participate in the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Unlike his fellow athletes, O.J. is never a protest figure. On the contrary, as both his white and black friends and colleagues testify, he wants, more than anything, to be part of mainstream (ergo white) America, arguing that by being the best and serving as role model, he can be the one to help young blacks reach their potential. And indeed, for a long time this theory seems to work. When, for example, he stars in the Hertz ad, a gorgeous smiling man in a three-piece suit carrying a briefcase, running madly through the airport and jumping over all obstacles, to reach his waiting car, various black interviewees testify to the fact that O.J. is the idol of their children. Never mind, that Hertz has carefully worked the imagery so that the people in the commercial who cheer O.J. on—a white-haired old lady, a bunch of little girls in school uniform, a Hertz aide—are all white. It’s OK, the CEO of Hertz tells us, to have a black star in the film, provided those he deals with are (safely) white.
What makes O.J. Simpson: Made in America so special is that Edelman never merely condemns O.J. for making his choices, never makes easy judgments about right and wrong. True, his childhood buddies remark that O.J. is being “seduced” by the white community; they worry that he is losing his identity. On the other hand, they also admit to wanting to be just like O.J., and to loving him for his generosity and friendship. And indeed his best friends continue to be the old ones from Portero Hills: A. C. Cowlings, who will drive the white bronco on its escape flight down the #405, ball player turned LAPD officer Ron Shipp, who adores him but later turns state’s evidence, teen-age football pal Joe Mott who accompanies O.J. on various escapades. As for the whites, his new golf buddies, Hollywood producer-friends, and business associates consider themselves genuinely fond of The Juice, wanting only to do him favors.
In LA, celebrity=money=power. Why not buy a mansion on Rockingham Road in Brentwood? On my own street, about ten minutes away from Rockingham, residents include Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Cosby’s mother, and Sugar Ray Leonard. Everyone boasts of having such distinguished neighbors! But meanwhile, as Edelman’s film won’t let us forget, across town very ugly things are happening. The film takes us from the Watts Riots that mark the end of the “LA is the ideal place for the southern Negro” mantra to the police brutality of Darryl Gates’s LAPD of the ‘70s and 80s —the period when a thirty-nine year old housewife named Eula Mae Love is shot and killed by the police in the course of an altercation over a $32.09 gas bill, when the Compton drug raids turn apartment buildings upside down, and when, in the early ‘90s, fifteen-year old Latasha Harlins is shot by a female Korean grocer in a fight over a bottle of orange juice. The grocer gets no jailtime for the killing, only probation, much to the fury of the neighborhood. And the conflict between the white then militaristic LAPD and the black community comes to a head in the famous video of the Rodney King beating of 1992. Despite national outcry, the four police officers, who are tried in the white suburb of Simi Valley, are all cleared. What follows is a series of riots that are the worst in LA history.
All these travails are recounted by various witnesses who watched the actions in question unfold and are documented by astonishing photographs and newspaper clippings. Los Angeles, photographed again and again from the air, especially at night when the twinkling lights seem to equalize all, is really a dual universe, East and West Sides rarely encountering one another. O.J., by the simple fact of his being a black man living in white LA, comes to be the pivot on which the two worlds will cross.
In 1977, a USC graduate named Jack Hanson (who looks a shade louche in his brief screen cameo) opens a private club in Beverly Hills called The Daisy and urges a mutual friend to bring O.J. round so as to give his club a little luster. It is here that O.J. first encounters the eighteen-year old “drop-dead gorgeous” blonde cocktail waitress named Nicole Brown. For O.J., it is love at first sight. And, surprisingly, Nicole is quite willing, two days after they meet, to tell family and friends that O.J. Simpson wants to get her an apartment and a car. Neither she nor her Long Beach family seem to have the slightest scruples even though O.J. is twice Nicole’s age, married to a black woman, and the father of two children. And so the union that leads to death begins. O.J. divorces Marguerite and marries Nicole; he is soon the “money man” who supports the whole Brown family, putting two of her sisters through college and getting Nicole’s father a franchise with a Hertz dealership.
I have always avoided comparisons of modern plays and novels to Greek or Shakespearean tragedy: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for example, strikes me as an example of pathos rather than tragedy since salesman Willy Loman is by no definition “greater than we are,” nor, despite Mrs. Loman’s choric plea that “Attention must be paid,” is Willy brought down by a particular hamartia (Aristotle’s tragic flaw). But if any contemporary “character” is truly tragic it is O.J. Simpson, at least as his life is presented in Made in America.
Consider the Othello link. In a society like ours that no longer has great military heroes, the star athlete is a plausible counterpart of the brave and gifted warrior. Having “stolen” Desdemona from her father Brabantio, much to the latter’s rage and disgust, Othello does not worry about his father-in-law’s fury. “Let him do his spite: / My services, which I have done the signiory, / Shall out-tongue his complaints.” Admired by his Venetian patrons for his military renown, the Moor is confident: “I must be found: / My parts, my title, and my perfect soul, / Shall manifest me rightly.” My “perfect soul”—the reference to perfection comes up again and again in Othello and O.J. is quite similar. Years of praise of his “greatness” have convinced him he has it all; his self-confidence is supreme.
The tragedy in Othello’s case is that this man of “perfect soul” has no real sense of how those others, from the Duke of Venice to Brabantio to Iago and Emilia, really see him—he who is, after all, an outsider in the white Venice world. Accustomed to flattery and praise, socially unsophisticated, he is no match for Iago’s duplicity and believes what he is told. When, in Act V, he enters Desdemona’s bed chamber, his first words are “It is the cause, it is the cause my soul!”: he has convinced himself that “she must die, else she’ll betray more men.” From his perspective, Desdemona’s guilt would be a fatal blow to his own sense of self-perfection.
The O.J. tragedy is a quasi-parodic version of this absolutism. Desdemona, let’s remember, was entirely innocent; Nicole is not. As in Othello, her match with O.J. is passionate, but again as in Othello, the lovers have no real sense of one another’s worlds. Othello knows only the laws of the battlefield; O.J. as a black man from the ghetto, has a particular set of mores the Browns cannot understand. For example, as we see throughout the film, in the world of Portrero Hills and the football team, male friendship is the real bond: O.J. has life-long friends like Al Cowlings who will literally do anything for him. Wives and girlfriends are much less important: they are sex objects, trophies, the mothers of one’s children. The double standard is a simple fact for O.J., even as he cannot accept Nicole’s affairs, especially—and this is the last straw—when she has sex with his own young protégé, the football player Marcus.
Being black, in this context, is not just a matter of skin color: the cultural divide is large. Consider the scene where his friend Joe Mott finds out that O.J.’s father is homosexual. Learning about this situation from a mutual friend, Mott says scathingly, “Shut up, man. I don’t want to hear it.” And he explains to the audience, “In our community being homosexual was about the worst thing a human being could be.” This was in the 70s and much has changed, but I well recall that what Mott says is quite true: in the 70s and 80s, the black church-going lower-class community was deeply suspicious of gays. And clearly having a gay father pushed O.J. to assert his manhood even more aggressively at every turn.
The situation was thus rife for a tragic denouement. The notion of domestic violence (did O.J., one wonders, also beat Marguerite and, if so, would she have complained to the police?) is heightened by the images of big black man/petite white blonde that now fill the screen. In this “tragedy,” the subsequent murder of Ron Goldman is mere collateral: like Polonius in Hamlet, Ron Goldman is merely the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hamlet never really feels guilt for the murder of the courtier, whom he considers a meddlesome old fool; similarly, OJ seems to give little thought to Goldman. But—and here the analogy is to Greek rather than Shakespearean tragedy—the Goldmans are the Eumenides of the O.J. drama; they are the Furies in pursuit of Orestes (another O, this time one who has killed his mother) who will never give up. Cleared of the murder charge, O.J., like Orestes, can never find peace, for the Eumenides, in the form of the Goldmans, pursue their prey relentlessly. First they set in motion and win the civil trial, destroying what is left of OJ’s name and property and driving him out of LA. They are, as Fred Goldman himself insists, always on his tail. A full thirteen years after the verdict in the murder trial, Fred and daughter Kim travel to Las Vegas only to witness the pathetic “armed robbery” trial, where Simpson is found guilty on various counts. “We are thrilled,” Fred Goldman says of the verdict. “Let the S.O.B. rot in jail! Now he can finally be with others of his kind.”
Is “thrilled” an appropriate word here? And are the petty criminals in the Lovelock Correctional Center really of OJ’s” kind”? One can hardly blame the bereaved father for feeling as he does. Nevertheless, the statement hardly generates catharsis. On the contrary, cruel as it may be to say so, when one compares the 26-year old waiter from all accounts a rather feckless college drop-out from Chicago, who came to Los Angeles to surf, party, and meet celebrities like Nicole Simpson (she once let him drive her Ferrari!), to O.J. Simpson at the same age, the difference is striking. In Shakespearean terms, Ron is Laertes to O.J’s Hamlet. Recall the early scene in Part I where the newly married eighteen-year old Bernadette Simpson, delighted to be on the USC campus, is asked to describe her 19-year old husband to an interviewer for the Daily Trojan. “He’s a very serious person,” she declares. “Just a very serious person. He really loves football.” And no doubt, in those early years of necessary discipline, that’s what O.J. was.
The murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman takes place against the backdrop of Los Angeles’s race wars, and the subsequent trial, preceded by the many arrests OJ suffers for beating Nicole and her 911 calls, contains so many ironies that it is hard to unpack them. First, there is the irony of an O.J. who considers himself above and beyond race, but who is saved by the race card, played not by his originally chosen lawyer, Robert Shapiro, but by the brilliant black trial lawyer Johnny Cochran, whom O.J. is, at first, reluctant to hire. Again, there is the irony of O.J.’s years of friendship with the cops from the local LAPD, who regularly come to his Brentwood estate on Sundays to drink beer, swim, and play basketball—these jolly images juxtaposed to the revelation of the slanderous language of the “racist” cop Mark Fuhrman, who is the prosecution’s star witness. Again, consider the irony of “white” O.J. having to appeal to a jury made up of mostly black women—women who inherently mistrust Nicole Brown Simpson, the white trophy wife of a black man who should have known better than to get involved with a woman not of “his kind.” Then, too—and here prosecutor Marcia Clark misses this point completely—consider the irony that the jurors will side with O.J. no matter what, it being payback time for Rodney King.
But no irony is quite as great—and it came as a real surprise to me—as the reaction to the Not Guilty verdict in Part V. Having lived through the real thing in 1994, I thought I more or less knew what had happened and how the Dream Team had gotten their client off. I remember the announcement of the verdict well: I was teaching at Stanford and was on my weekly Tuesday morning plane ride to San Jose. When the pilot broke the silence to announce the verdict, the mostly white passengers exclaimed “Oh no!” How could this be, given the obvious guilt of Simpson?
Edelman’s film has taught me how much more was involved than the actual guilt or innocence of the defendant. When the Not Guilty verdict has been read and relayed to those outside the courthouse, the crowd of blacks—a huge crowd—has a victory celebration, even as the whites inside the building and on the other side of town express their dismay and disbelief. In offices nearby, in shops and gas stations, the black population goes into wild cheer mode.
According to surveys, seventy-three percent of whites thought O.J. was guilty; seventy-seven percent of blacks, that he was innocent. The black community could not believe their hero, indeed, their idol for so many years, could have committed such a crime. Whatever had happened that fatal night, he didn’t do it. And even if he had done it, there must have been good cause and a cover-up. Nicole Simpson and her family: who could trust these people?
The black community is at least partly justified in view of the actions of O.J.’s white friends across town. Declared innocent, he is taken back to his Brentwood home, and, after a quick drink with F. Lee Bailey and Johnny Cochran, immediately abandoned by the lawyers who worked so hard to win his case. By the next day, they’ve all disappeared and on TV, Robert Shapiro more or less apologizes for having played the race card, implying that the whole trial was a farce. As for O.J.’s golf buddies and white business associates, his press friends and Hollywood admirers, they turn on him overnight. Bob Kardashian, once boasting O.J. was his best friend, now tells Barbara Walters, that he and O.J. were just casual business acquaintances, who saw each other about twice a year. When O.J. goes to the ‘76 station in Brentwood or to the Brentwood Country Mart on 26th St, he is greeted by signs reading, “Wife Beater!” “Brentwood Murderer!” “Get out of town, OJ!” and so on.
One can argue, of course, that Kardashian and the others had, in the meantime, seen all the evidence for O.J.’s guilt and had therefore taken Nicole’s side. But given the verdict as fait accompli, wouldn’t an effort at rehabilitation have been possible? And weren’t the lawyers the guilty ones for having opted for a Not Guilty plea in the first place?
However we view these matters, O.J. now becomes a pariah. And so he turns—briefly—to the black community on the other side of town—a community that still welcomes him to its church socials, its prayer services, its Roscoe Chicken’n’Waffles restaurants. Various pastors embrace him and urge him to turn to Jesus. But it is too late. O.J. cannot really change; indeed, having lived a lie for over a year now, he cannot feel comfortable bearing witness to Christ’s love and forgiveness. The second half of Part V chronicles O.J.’s sad sad decline: the sale of his house and its demolition, his move from the Riviera Country Club to the public golf course, from exclusive parties in Beverly Hills to evenings in sleazy Miami clubs with a bunch of low- life characters—pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts—the whole gamut. Long before the Las Vegas robbery, O.J. Simpson is a truly lost soul.
The film that tracks this trajectory is designed to raise questions, not to produce answers. What if O.J. had pleaded guilty on grounds of temporary insanity? It was, after all, a crime of passion and the first crime of his life (at age 47). At the moment of the Bronco chase he seems almost ready to confess. He evidently does confess to A. C. Cowlings and later obliquely to Ron Shipp and to his manager. Would he have been eventually paroled and forgiven?
But given the climate of Los Angeles in the nineties, a plea-bargain was not in the cards. Once the defense team was in control of the situation, winning was essential. Indeed, had O.J. been declared guilty, there surely would have been more riots! It was still payback time for Rodney King and for so many other things. O.J.’s freedom was the concession offered to the black community in exchange for interregnum. “Can’t we all get along?” Rodney King had asked plaintively, and indeed for a short time, relations between the black community and the police seemed to improve. But for how long? Today, what with the cases of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Philando Castile, it sometimes seems that, when it comes to race wars in America, nothing will ever change.
Perhaps the best way to regard the O.J. tragedy, is as a terrible but not surprising reaction formation to an American culture whose values are so curiously skewed. When OJ wins that big game with UCLA back in 1967, one of O.J.s fellow players, a white man named Fred Khasigian, recalls that whereas the USC community considered the upcoming UCLA-USC game “a matter of life and death,” “it was much more than that.” Life and death? Everyday stuff. It is winning the game that is much more than that. And this is at a university, presumably a seat of higher learning. Winning the game—at USC, later at Hertz or on the set of Towering Inferno, or at the Mezzaluna: this is what counts. When this same fellow player is asked by an interviewer what he remembers about the year 1968, he looks puzzled. “1968? That was the year we were winning all those games and O.J. was so great. I can’t remember anything else.” Later in the film, ironically enough, winning the game will be winning the trial, no matter what the outcome.
One of the great photographic feats of this brilliantly conceived film is that the young OJ is always seen in motion—he is always on the run—down the corridors of his high school, on the football field or the track, racing in such films as Naked Gun, and finally speeding between Rockingham Road and Gretna Green Drive on the night of the murder. The most emblematic run is that of the white Bronco, going 90 mph down the #405 with the police escort close by. But then the trial begins and for almost a year, this man-in-perpetual—motion has to sit still on a hard bench all day long; this man who loved to laugh and “be boisterous,” to hug everyone and break into song and dance, has to sit perfectly still for hours on end. He is wearing a dark suit, white shirt and sober tie. Othello, we might say, with his occupation gone.
One need hardly be a sentimentalist to find this docudrama tragic. Go back to the opening scene and listen to O.J., recounting, in plain and sober detail, his daily routine of mopping floors and disinfecting the gym equipment. Presented without moralizing on the part of its director, and without narrative voice-over, Edelman’s film strikes me as at least as moving and as important as, say, The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway comes to such neat and edifying conclusions about the futility of Gatsby’s pursuit of the “green light above the dock”—the American dream. Edelman merely presents: you can draw your own conclusions as to who is most guilty. But whatever else, the main thing to take away from OJ Simpson: Made in America is that nothing about American culture, and especially nothing about race relations in the U.S. is easy or obvious. In his last speech before his suicide, Othello says:
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex’d in the extreme. . .
Just so, in one of his late TV interviews, O.J. begs the public to remember the “good O.J.”: the one who “was your friend,” the guy who always tried to treat people well, to do unto others as he would have them do unto him. At the moment he says these words, he clearly thinks of himself as somehow innocent. And—for a magic moment—we think so too.