There’s a moment in the FX series The People v O.J. Simpson, where Simpson, sitting with his lawyers in county jail, learns that his defense team’s strategy will be to highlight the Los Angeles police department’s infamous history of police brutality towards the African-American community. Simpson is bemused by this development: “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
Whether or not this scene took place is unknowable, but Simpson was certainly no stranger to the sentiment; he uttered the phrase to friends and teammates as early as his running-back days at USC, when he first felt the exceptional force of 80,000 fans cheering his name. Back then, O.J. Simpson had a rare kind of athletic gift, one that allowed him to see holes in the defense and glide through the gridiron, akin to how Wayne Gretzky could skate to the hockey puck or Babe Ruth could see the baseball spin in slower motion.
Was it magic or sleight of hand? Was it talent or a trick? Did his extraordinary athletic ability, and resulting celebrity, explain why the American people were so willing to give Simpson a pass on evidence of spousal abuse, until the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman forced other, uglier considerations?
These questions are at the heart of Ezra Edelman’s masterful, maximalist documentary O.J.: Made in America, which will air as a five-episode series, with the first part premiering June 11 on ABC and the rest running on ESPN. (I caught the film during its week-long theatrical run for Oscar consideration.) Though it’s more than seven hours long, the documentary zips along, chronicling Simpson’s Everest-level rise and calamitous fall, as well as systemic racism and police brutality, accusations of domestic violence, and the monstrous side of fame.
Edelman takes a wider scope than Ryan Murphy’s fictionalized account of the Simpson trial, which dug into the courtroom drama and the multi-ring media circus. The People v. O.J. Simpson began with footage of the Rodney King verdict and went on to examine the rage roiling underneath the surface of Los Angeles. The pulpy melodrama portrayed the lawyers, on both sides, as people who either failed to understand the larger, broader problem of race in the United States, or knew the issue intimately enough to manipulate it.
O.J.: Made in America also places Simpson’s trial in counterpoint with the brutality of the Los Angeles police, but it draws a fuller historical picture. Juror Carrie Bess tells Edelman that “about 90 percent” of the jury voted not guilty as payback for Rodney King. For black residents of Los Angeles, King was simply the most recent victim of injustice: Still fresh was the senseless 1979 police killing of Eula Love, and the 1991 murder of teenager Latasha Harlins, whose killer was sentenced to community service and probation.
Edelman helps us understand why the O.J. verdict was inevitable; it was, in essence, a grand act of jury nullification. O.J. was no longer a person, but a symbol; a “vessel” for civil rights issues, as activist Danny Bakewell describes in the film. O.J. is black and he is O.J., but he is also a hollow reflection of what we wish to project upon him.
The People v. O.J. Simpson also treated the man as a vessel; Simpson, as played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., was a cipher, the weakest link in the FX series. In O.J.: Made in America, we finally get the chance to really regard him. Watching footage of the real Simpson in his prime—zig-zagging 64 yards for a touchdown, pitching rental cars for Hertz, or finding his comedic groove in the Naked Gun movies—gives Edelman’s documentary its furious engine. We can see Simpson as he once was: a monstrous manifestation of the Horatio Alger story, one that shows how the American dream beats with a malevolent heart.
For Simpson, celebrity was a calling; life wasn’t worth living without knowing someone else was watching. In a post-trial interview, Simpson still had enough wattage to charm the skeptical Wendy Williams, who hardly ever suffers fools. (“Damn you, O.J., I like you,” she admits at the end.) That is the celebrity’s job, to make everyone feel as if he likes them. No wonder the amiable Jekyll in public turned into a vicious Hyde in private—abusing, assaulting, belittling, stalking, and eventually murdering the woman he professed to love.
It’s textbook narcissism, and Simpson showed signs of it from an early age. Childhood friend Joe Bell describes an incident where he, A.C. Cowlings, and Simpson were caught by the principal playing craps in the bathroom; Simpson abandoned them to their punishment, claiming he was “just trying to help” turn his friends in. While at USC, when other notable black athletes stood up for civil rights in 1968, Simpson demurred, saying in interviews that it was more important to push ahead with his own goals—that same year he won the Heisman Trophy. Simpson could never feel allegiance to a community, let alone the black community, because his only allegiance was to himself.
Simpson’s bottomless charm allowed him to spend hours signing autographs for fans, but his insecurity spurred him to network relentlessly among rich white entrepreneurs, gleefully playing 18-hole rounds at tony golf clubs where he broke the color barrier, conquering their world as effortlessly as he slid past defensive backs on the football field. Narcissists can’t empathize, but they can look around for cues to fake it.
While O.J.: Made in America contends with the vast gulf between Simpson’s cultivated image and violent private rage, I wish Edelman had probed deeper into his psyche. How early on in Simpson’s life did he decide he would be famous? Why could Simpson look around the low-income housing projects of Potrero Hill and see a blazing way out?
Perhaps those questions lack proper answers. Just as we can never know “beyond a reasonable doubt” who killed Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, thanks to the criminal trial verdict (he was later found guilty in the civil trial) we can never know the “real” O.J. Simpson—whether fame changed him, or whether there was no him to change.
The final part of the documentary shows Simpson’s steep decline into depravity; his poor impulse control and atrocious decision-making culminated in 2008 with a 33-year prison sentence for robbery and kidnapping. (His sentence was later reduced to about a decade; he is currently incarcerated at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada, eligible for parole in 2017). Watching Simpson grasp for celebrity scraps in South Beach and Las Vegas, the audience is asked to contemplate how karma often supersedes justice.
But O.J.: Made in America arrives at a moment when America treads on dangerous ground, when the election of a celebrity demagogue—one whose second wedding Simpson attended—has become a horrific possibility. Once again, the country is caught up in a turbo-charged version of The Truman Show—no statement is too outrageous for the press. Simpson, whose power and self-worth depended so much on the camera’s watchful eye, would understand it all too well.