O.J. and Us
The cover image on iTunes for the Academy Award-winning documentary series "O.J. Simpson: Made in America" is a dripping glove in the design of the stars and stripes. It perfectly captures the message of the series -- the "trial of the century" was really a reflection of America's sins.
So, yes, the history of the Rodney King beating, the Watts riots of 1965, Mark Fuhrman's disgusting racist language, and every curse, slap and traffic stop ever suffered by a black American at the hands of the police is part of the gloomy backdrop of the Simpson case.
But that is far from the whole story. The film would have been less interesting if that were all there was to it. Certainly the filmmaker Ezra Edelman (the biracial son of Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman and law professor Peter Edelman) places the O.J. case within the context of black/white tensions in Los Angeles and in America generally. The jury's indifference to the evidence is juxtaposed with the grainy video of Rodney King's tormentors, undated black-and-white images of police roughing up black suspects and even stills of lynchings. One of the jurors looks straight into the camera and declares that in acquitting Simpson "we took care of our own."
The extent of black joy at the Simpson acquittal remains shocking even 22 years later. Huge crowds had formed outside the courtroom to hear the verdict. The LAPD had prepared the scene with barricades and mounted police. At the words "not guilty," such a spontaneous roar of triumph erupted that a couple of the horses reared back in fright.
But while it's clear that Edelman was interested in more than Simpson's guilt or innocence -- "that's been done" he told The New York Times -- the participants in the drama cannot get past that, because they're human, and their deep need for justice keeps asserting itself. Thus, Ron Shipp, a black cop who had a long and warm friendship with O.J., chose to testify against him after seeing the pictures of the butchered bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. The defense destroyed him in cross.
Random black lawbreakers might sometimes get rough treatment from the LAPD, but as the film makes abundantly clear, celebrities live by different rules. Nicole Brown Simpson made at least nine anguished 911 calls after beatings at O.J.'s hands. In one, terror tightening her throat, she pleaded, "He's going to kill me." But the most this serial abuser got was 120 hours of community service. Even when he was wanted for a grisly double homicide, fleeing down the freeway in his white Bronco, the police held back.
The O.J. story is as much about celebrity as about race and justice. I had forgotten, for example, that as the Bronco careened down the highway, people thronged the overpasses with homemade signs. "Run, O.J., Run!" or "We love you, O.J." They knew, of course, what he was accused of (and what his flight implied about his guilt), but a party atmosphere prevailed. The documentarian's camera captured the face of District Attorney Gil Garcetti as he was seeing this in real time. During an interview with one of the networks, he shakes his head in disbelief as the anchor mentions the crowds "cheering Simpson on." "Cheering him on?" he repeats, dismayed. Maybe the trial came to a dead end right there.
Celebrity worship, in all its tawdriness, is a star character in the drama. How did Simpson pay his pricey "dream team" of lawyers? While in jail, he signed autographs, which fetched a tidy sum. Even after the verdict, the public thirst for O.J. Simpson was not slaked. "I've had more women now than before," he marveled at one point. He received $50,000 to $100,000 for public appearances. A major publisher offered him a $700,000 book advance. On camera, a black radio hostess flirted with the killer, clearly knowing, and yet charmed.
O.J. Simpson was charming, as evidenced in videos of his early life, his dazzling football career, his Hollywood roles and, most of all, in his talk show appearances. Those struck me particularly. He was a brilliant con man, able to convey warmth and sweetness. You trusted and liked him immediately, and he took it to the bank and beyond.
That explained his brilliant career. But his continuing celebrity status after the murder and civil trials revealed, perhaps for the first but hardly the last time, that some numbers of Americans make no distinctions between fame and infamy. Moral midgets blushed and shrieked to shake his hand, even knowing what those hands had done. Simpson is far from alone in his depravity.
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