How OJ Simpson and a CNN Series About Decades Made Me Rethink Childhood
I was fourteen years old when OJ Simpson went from being a former Football god and comedic movie star to landing the Trial of the Century. As a kid in the 1980’s I saw old football footage of The Juice doing what he did best on the football field and I remember my dad using illustrations of OJ on the field in The Juice’s glory days to make a point in a sermon he gave from the pulpit of our church. I remember watching The Naked Gun for the first time and laughing to the point my sides hurt when OJ’s clumsy and unlucky Detective Nordberg tried to repeatedly catch the bad guys and would find every way imaginable to screw it up and hurt himself in the process. By the time Nordberg is bound to a wheelchair and seems to be on the mend in a football stadium only to roll down every concrete step and go plummeting to the field below, I was spewing soda out my nostrils and clutching my sides.
But then 1994 happened and suddenly the tone about OJ Simpson shifted to a dark place in my household and in households all over America. In my fourteen year-old naivete, I mistakenly assumed every single human being in the country was certain of OJ’s guilt and assumed that the only reason the trial lasted as long as it did was because OJ was famous. This was partially correct, but for reasons I really had no idea about. I would occasionally hear throwbacks to the infamous LA Riots of 1991 and 1992, and even with the advent of Johnnie Cochran to OJ’s legal team, I’m embarrassed to admit I really had no idea how the two events were related until recently.
This is not going to be a recounting of the events of the OJ Trial. God knows there are enough documents and essays and articles written on the subject to last a lifetime. And this article isn’t really even about OJ. Accept in the places where it is, because in some strange way this event that I had only a limited awareness of as a young teenager seems to play a role in my own paradigm shift and continues to fuel my curiosity and view of the world I live in. And it plays a role in those changing worldviews without me ever really thinking of the man again until Cuba Gooding Jr. hauntingly played him in the 2016 FX drama “The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.” And after that, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about The Juice.
A White Child of the 1980s South
As a kid growing up in Georgia and the panhandle of Florida in the 80’s and 90’s, I was certainly no stranger to the differing worldviews of blacks and whites. I would spend summers working on my grandpa’s farm and would hear him make comments and jokes that I had LONG known were offensive to black people, and would even utter the N-word, which my parents had forbid against and had raised us knowing it was far worse than the most fowl language in the English vocabulary. I remember my brother having an African-American friend over after church one Sunday (and Sundays meant a Sunday lunch at my grandparents’ house), and unbelievably, my grandpa uttered a racist joke, and while everyone at the table rolled their eyes because “Nobody Dared Defy Papa,” my dad — a pastor and moral compass to his community — had decided this was enough. He turned the reddest I’ve ever seen him and unleashed a holy terror on my grandfather. He yelled and said he had spent his whole life trying to make sure his kids were raised without that kind of bigotry and hate and he would make sure NO ONE in his family shared those kinds of uneducated and heartless worldviews. Or something to that effect. It was one of the proudest moments I’ve had about my father. It was a brave and moral decision to risk alienation from his parents and it was also a look into his soul.
My parents weren’t perfect, and sometimes, as byproducts of their region and childhoods, they would occasionally say things about people of other nationalities that — while not intentionally being prejudiced — didn’t seem to make logical sense and appeared to line up more with the conservative politics and rhetoric of the Southern Baptist/Pentacostal culture they belonged to. I get it. Jimmy Swaggart (before the prostitutes), Jim Bakker (before it legally turned out that God hadn’t in fact told him to build a theme park), and James Dobson — these were the talking heads pastors in Protestant-America listened to and there was no Twitter or Wikipedia to disprove anything they said. And like the rest of white America in 1994, they were dumbfounded at the Not-Guilty Verdict in the OJ Simpson trial, and therefore, I thought the rest of the world was dumbfounded, too. And by rest-of-the-world, I thought that included everyone.
(Note: Like most other people who were products of their generation and cultures and customs of previous decades, my parents have also evolved far from those stereotypical worldviews in the 80’s and 90's.)
FX’s The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
When I first heard about the American Horror Story spin-off anthology series, American Crime Story, coming to FX, and I heard the first story they were going to dissect was the OJ Simpson trial, I was immediately uninterested. For one thing, hadn’t we lived through enough of this in the nineties? Why were we suddenly bringing all this back. OJ had gone into obscurity for so many years and then gotten arrested for his Las Vegas hotel antics and had been put away where he was no longer a danger to society. After all, it was all some sort of karma retribution that got the best of him anyway. The story was done. Over. Finished…. Right?
And second, Cuba Gooding Jr. looked NOTHING like OJ!
But the entertainment news that serves as my guilty pleasure in life kept blowing up each day with the critical acclaim this series was getting. From John Travolta’s spot-on portrayal of Bob Shapiro to David Schwimmer getting Emmy buzz for his portrayal of Rob Kardashian. (Wait, I don’t know that I knew who Rob Kardashian even was, but I know who his KIDS are.) And then there was a Fresh Air interview (I think it was Fresh Air, I’m too lazy to look it up at the moment) with Sarah Paulson, who was getting rave reviews for her role as Marcia Clark.
The more I thought about it, the more questions I had about all of it. Did I even remember anyone else on OJ’s legal team besides Johnnie Cochran? I mean, other than every other white person I knew who all agreed Cochran was full of crap, I didn’t really recall anything. And speaking of white people, it began to dawn on me I had never talked to ANY African-American person about what they thought of the OJ trial at the time.
I knew nothing about Shapiro, Kardashian, or even Christopher Darden really. All I remember about Marcia Clark was that people in my high school said that “if she had been a dude, OJ would have been found guilty.”
And that long-ass police chase with OJ’s Bronco — do you mean to tell me OJ wasn’t driving the thing but actually had a gun to his head? And wasn’t Mark Fuhrman one of the GOOD guys? (I know, I know, it’s embarrassing.)
Wait! Did I really know ANYTHING about what actually happened in OJ’s Trial of the Century? I’m embarrassed to say I began to realize I did not.
So I began watching The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. I was already a fan of Ryan Murphy from his amazing work on American Horror Story, and just like AHS, Murphy reeled me right in to OJ.
The first thing I learned upon my first viewing was that The People Vs OJ Simpson was not on a mission to change the minds of every white person in America. They weren’t trying to make white people feel guilty about thinking OJ was guilty. What they DID do was show us a glimpse into all the parts of the Trial of the Century that most of us didn’t know about. From the moment the series opened with a more in-depth look into the South-Central Riots of two years prior to LA police searching the Brentwood house and stopping stone cold in their tracks at the bronze statue of a young Simpson with a football, I knew I would be binge-watching this series.
Far from trying to show the world that OJ was innocent the whole time, American Crime Story had Cuba’s OJ making questionable decisions from home and in prison, showing so much ego it’s laughable at how realistic it seemed, and by the end of it, you were left with more questions about OJ than you started with or had any answers to, one way or the other.
And that is precisely their point. You have questions. You’re ASKING…QUESTIONS. You’re no longer certain of everything before you know anything about the story. Instead, you’re paying attention to clues and evidence.
Much like a jury would have to.
The series makes you think about the Riots of the early 90’s. It takes you through Johnnie Cochran’s early adult years as he is humiliatingly assaulted by a police officer in front of his children because he happened to drive a car that looked nicer than what a man of his race should have been driving in Los Angeles at that time. And there’s a humanity in Cochran’s strained relationship with the young Chris Darden who had been mentored by him. There’s a humanity in Marcia Clark’s fight between Clark the MOTHER and Clark the Assistant District Attorney.
This article isn’t about OJ. It isn’t about the Trial of the Century. And it isn’t even really about television. This article is about the tension between what we are brought up believing about the world we live in and our willingness to relearn everything we thought we knew about the world we live in.
The Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties.
After binge-watching The People Vs. OJ Simpson, I learned more about The Juice and his weird and fantastical rise and fall in the ESPN 6-hour documentary (Yes, six..freaking..hours…and somehow it STILL keeps you wanting more…) OJ: Made In America. And then I decided to start watching a series I knew little about but somehow kept showing up on my “Netflix Recommends” list, CNN’s The Eighties. I had seen the cover art for CNN’s other decade series The Sixties and The Seventies, but decided to work backward. I am, after all, a product of the 1980’s. From Reagan to the Cold War to Cheers, I felt it was time to see what else I had been brought up to believe about the world of my childhood that may have been somehow misrepresented to me at the time.
The series…was nothing short of amazing. Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and Mark Herzog had come together to produce a series about some of the most important cultural, entertaining, and international events complete with old footage and modern interviews with some of the biggest players in those categories today. In The Seventies, I learned that this is the decade that actually launched hip-hop music and rap. (Not the eighties as I’d always thought? Nope.) It came out of the fusion of rhythm and blues music and disco. And to see and hear Roots drummer and Tonight Show bandleader Questlove talk about those songs that made him want to be a musician is awe-inspiring. I worked backward through the 80’s, 70’s, and 60’s, and now wait with bated breath for each new episode of the now-running Nineties.
The World We Remember Isn’t Always the World That Was
What did I learn from these shows? Not always a lot I didn’t learn from other documentaries, but watching these shows refills me with a curiosity to understand what I’ve always taken for granted.
I was a child born to a white, middle class family in the deep south of the United States. I had good parents, a good education for public school, and was brought up in a cultural class and religion that just happened to be the most acceptable class and religion for my country, and that meant that even though my parents weren’t rich by any stretch of imagination, with enough hard work and determination I could go on to do anything I really wanted to. That upbringing has allowed me to get most any job I’ve ever wanted, it’s allowed me to be creative and be heard and read by anyone who wants to. And it has also allowed me to view any event that happened around the world through the rose-colored glasses of my upbringing, culture, class, and religion. Through that lens, I make judgments based on what that upbringing, culture, class, and religion says is acceptable and unacceptable.
And I’m truly grateful for all I have, and for the truly privileged upbringing I had.
But what if I hadn’t been born into that family? What if my eyes opened for the first time into a world where my mother was a single mom in a bad neighborhood and a dad who had gone missing before I ever knew him? What if I would come to learn that my skin color was darker than most of the men who were running the USA in the 1980s and somehow, in some weird way, I could be singled-out and targeted by police officers just by going into a store to buy a soda? What if I saw reports on the news that teenage girls who looked a lot like me had been shot in a Korean convenience store because the girl’s very presence indicated that she might be capable of stealing orange juice?
Would my worldview look different?
Yes. One hundred percent yes.
While I hadn’t been thinking of OJ Simpson for decades, a show made years later about one of the most life-changing events of his life made me ask questions of my own childhood. And that is the power of television. That is the power of storytelling. That is the power of curiosity. And it’s what I hope will keep my own children asking questions about the world they live in. I have no doubt that sometime in their adult lives, some show or movie about Harry Styles or Eric Hosmer will cause them to ask, “I wonder if my dad really knew what he was talking about at that time?” (The truth will probably be, NO, Dad had NO idea!)
Because it turns out that questions have the ability to change our lives far more than answers do. Or, to rephrase that, answers may change events of your life, but questions will change the way you see the world.
Has any modern event caused you to rethink your upbringing?
What about you? Have you ever rethought an experience or even your entire worldview because you were presented with evidence that what you may have once believed wasn’t true? Tell me your story in the comments below. I’m truly curious to see your own story.