Two hours into ESPN’s five-part documentary on O.J. Simpson and I’m already wishing it was longer.
That’s what happens when, as a Los Angeles Times critic puts it, you view “a masterwork of scholarship, journalism and cinematic art.”
“O.J.: Made in America” resumes Tuesday night after introducing us to 18-year-old Nicole Brown at the conclusion of Part 1. We all know what happens in the end – someone (possibly/probably Simpson) kills Brown and an acquaintance, leading to the trial of the century.
But judging by Sunday night’s installment, our advance knowledge won’t spoil what we learn along the way.
The lessons are plentiful and multi-layered, providing rich, contextual soil that’s impossible to till in today’s popular microwave analyses. This isn’t a simple black-and-white case of race, celebrity, passion and criminal justice. It’s all of that and more, tracing its roots to the politics of identity, the clash of cultures and the history of psychological warfare.
I had just turned 11 in 1973, when Simpson became the first NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season. He was a ubiquitous figure afterward, his name becoming synonymous with the NFL. His fame grew through commercials for Hertz and later, in retirement, through movies and broadcasting.
But I didn’t know the backstory, how Simpson arduously scrubbed himself of blackness in an attempt to be viewed as non-other. How white America eagerly embraced him in the late 1960s to assuage itself during the fight for civil rights. How he played into the hands of those who point at outliers such as him and other “success stories” to dispute evidence of overall oppression and injustice.
“None of the people that we associated with looked at him as a black man,” former Hertz CEO Frank Olson said in the documentary. “O.J. was colorless.”
That was great … for O.J.
But it didn’t help the black men and women who were victims of police brutality. It didn’t help the blacks who faced discriminatory practices in employment, housing and banking. It didn’t help the fight for equality waged by those who weren’t famous athletes, entertainers and endorsers.
“O.J. was primarily interested in O.J.,” director Ezra Edelman told ESPN.com. “His rise to fame in the late ‘60s coincided with the period where black athletes were more outspoken and political than in any era. You’re talking about the generation of black athletes that came about after Jackie Robinson. Athletes after that were just happy to find a place in sports.
“But when you got to the mid-60s, you had athletes like Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali, who were very outspoken on the issues of race and civil rights. There was an expectation that black athletes were going to speak up, but O.J. was a different cat.”
One stark difference was evident on the field. Thanks to the documentary, I have newfound appreciation for him as a running back. I don’t recall seeing much footage previously, but the highlights in Edelman’s film show Simpson to be a singular, unique talent. No other member of the 2,000-yard club rushed for that amount in a 14-game season.
While learning how good Simpson was as a player, we also learn how complicated he was a human being. The same man who insisted that his linemen be included in the post-game interview after he set the rushing record, also stole (and married) his best friend’s girl, then cheated on her with Nicole Brown and allegedly ripped the teenager’s jeans on their first date.
We know that Brown eventually was subjected to domestic abuse at Simpson’s hands, ultimately resulting in her murder depending on whom you ask. But Edelman shows how everything that led to her death and Simpson’s trial helped create the chasm between blacks’ and whites’ sentiment.
Yes, the video of Rodney King’s brutal, merciless beating by acquitted L.A. police officers had an effect. But so did the belief that Simpson’s case would’ve drawn far less scrutiny had the victim been brown Marguerite – his first wife – instead of blonde Nicole.
In a system that seems rigged against people of color, some found it refreshing to see money, privilege and celebrity work on their behalf. The other side simply saw a (black) man get away with murduring a (white) woman, an inconceivable thought.
“I’m just trying to tell a good story about a subject that a lot of people think they knew something about,” Edelman said. “And hopefully we found a way to add some texture and nuance to that conversation.”
Digging beneath the surface to examine the framework and subtle characteristics of race and class isn’t a strong suit of modern society. It takes longer to develop than blanket statements and hot takes.
Thankfully, Edelman has devoted nearly eight hours to this slice of American history.
If we fail to learn something new when it’s over, we have only ourselves to blame.