“OJ Simpson: Made in America” — the crimes we can’t outrun
There is a moment watching the first two hours of “OJ Simpson: Made in America” where you see footage of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year old black girl shot in the back of the head and killed by a Korean corner store owner. I had heard Harlins ‘story before, had read tribute paid to her in poetry, but had never seen the grainy video footage of the shooting. In the decades that have followed, we have seen so much more of Harlins’ story. Each year the names are new. Latasha becomes Trayvon Martin. Becomes Michael Brown. Becomes Eric Garner. Becomes Sandra Bland. The circumstances different. But the stories pick the same wounds. Pull tighter the same knots. The outrage dulls to weariness, then rage again. The blood, on pavements and floors across America, can’t be cleansed.
So what does this has to do with OJ Simpson? As it turns out: everything.
The one thing you need to know about Ezra Edelman’s documentary (that you’ve surely learned by now) is that it’s sweeping. Simpson’s has been portrayed as Shakespearian (more on that later) but director Edelman’s scope is Dickensian. You learn about OJ’s childhood in San Francisco’s projects. You learn about his emergence as a star athlete at USC (where he was already married to his first wife, Marguerite Whitley). You learn about his father and hear from his high school friends. But in this documentary, the story of OJ actually starts, chronologically, with the Watts riots of ‘65. The story of OJ includes Latasha Harlins and the drug raids in South Central. Because this is not just the story of OJ and how he came to be (in all his iterations). This is as much a tale of Los Angeles. A tale of what it means to “transcend race” — or perhaps the perils of attempting to. It’s a tale of South Central and a tale of Hollywood. It is a tale of America, which means it’s a tale of ourselves.
Some have wondered why revisit OJ now, if perhaps the release of this documentary is exploitative, capitalizing on a resurgence of interest in OJ following the FX series that premiered earlier this year. Of course, that’s logistically impossible. The film has been many years in the making, and at a recent screening, Edelman shared his initial frustration of finding out that the FX series would be premiering the same year as his work. It’s clear now that the American Crime Story series works to his advantage, mostly because it has an entirely different scope. The American Crime Story concerns itself with the trial and the trial’s characters, illuminating the latter in the light of twenty years of hindsight.
Edelman’s documentary is about the context of OJ Simpson, and concerns itself with one central question: who, or what, made OJ? After all, he began simply enough — as a preternaturally gifted athlete eager to transcend his circumstances. He thrust himself into the center of our idolatry and had the nerve to buy into the myth of himself. And then Simpson sought to further that myth, to devastating ends. But this documentary is as much about us and how we received OJ. How we cheered him along the way, whether it be as a Buffalo Bill or as the charismatic lead in the Hertz commercials. It’s about the us who continued to cheer him on at the trial — and why we did that. It’s about the us who stood back, appalled at the extent to which celebrity seemed to alter him, then altogether acquit him. Here, Edelman covers everything and spares no-one.
Implicated in this documentary is the culture that refused to bat an eyelash at Simpson’s infidelities, first to his first wife, then to Nicole Brown. The culture that looks at the circumstances of both these women and asks, with a straight face, “well, what did you expect when you married him?” The culture that has Brown calling 911 again and again to her Rockingham home (eight times) and only once was a police report ever filed. It is heartbreaking to see this play out because it should break your heart to hear a woman pleading for help, fearing the father of her children. But what gave me chills was thinking of Ray Rice dragging his fiancee out of the elevator. And now, Brock Turner’s 6 month sentence for raping a young, unconscious woman behind a dumpster. It is heartbreaking because, in many ways, it feels like we’re still trapped in this particular part of the movie.
It may surprise you who shows up in this documentary — and who opts out. Mark Fuhrman sits down for an interview, as does Marcia Clark. But the one person Edelman says he wish he could have spoken to isn’t OJ, but his first wife, Marguerite. While Edelman does the best he can to paint a portrait Simpson’s family life, both before, during, and after his marriage to Brown, the absence of Marguerite’s voice and experience is palpable. She has never spoken publicly about Simpson, and it is safe to assume she never will, but Edelman felt — and certainly the average viewer will too — that without her story, our understanding of OJ and his evolution remains incomplete.
In the years during and since the OJ trial, people have drawn the comparison between Simpson and Shakespeare’s Othello. The comparison is easy enough to draw: both were black men living beyond their station, warrior-figures who had earned the trappings of fame, wealth and respect from a culture that still didn’t view those men as their own. Both had taken up with white women, women who ended up dead in their hands. And, facing the reality of what their terrible, broken love caused, both men convinced themselves that their only crime was loving these women too much.
But a deeper commonality is the extent to which Othello and OJ bought into the myths of themselves. The myth that in America, any Black man is capable of “transcending” race. That such a position is one that he should even aspire to. The minute he landed at the University of Southern California, walling himself off from the realities of black life in South Central L.A. with the privilege of his athletic gifts and his celebrity, was OJ — and by extension, those who loved him — doomed?
The reason Simpson remains so compelling is what he reflects about us. I came to this country in 1995. That first year in America consisted of learning a new school system, making new friends, adopting new American habits, and coming home to that trial every day after school. I remember hoping OJ was innocent, especially after I learned, as a fifth grader, the terrible things the police had said about him. When he was freed, I was happy, though I couldn’t quite articulate why. I knew terribly little about the actual crime, but a lot about the emotions he elicited. I remember seeing the stark racial divide in the reactions to his acquittal. It was an indoctrination into this country unlike any other: a glimpse of America’s racial inheritance, its present, and its dire future. Watching Edelman’s “Made in America,” I felt closer to Simpson. Not because he is somehow a more compassionate, sympathetic figure. Not because learning the tragedy of his circumstances excuses the monstrosity of his actions. No, I felt closer to him because Simpson represents the weight of our very American-ness: the inheritance we can’t leave behind, the grief we won’t outrun, the crimes we can’t forgive, the stains that won’t out.