On Tuesday, June 17, 2016, President Barack Obama held a press conference to address the wrong-minded rhetoric manifesting after the hate crime attack on a gay night club in Orlando in which 50 lives were lost. Specifically, Obama wished to react to the continuous criticism from his opponents toward his avoidance of the term “radical Islam.” Perhaps it was the absurdity of the accusations against him, or the distinct urgency of the current unstable political moment, or maybe it was that this week marked the fourteenth time that he had to speak toward gun violence of comparable measure being unleashed upon his constituents, but for whatever reason, President Obama looked tired and worn as he stated, “We’ve gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear and we came to regret it.” But there is still something refreshing about having a leader move the conversation necessarily to America’s historical missteps, where other presidents have sidestepped and polished. Simultaneously, there’s something darkly ironic about his adoption of the collective personal pronoun “we,” an almost cynically comedic punchline as America’s first black president and perhaps the most socially progressive president in history was made to linguistically take ownership of America’s slavery trade, its Japanese internment camps, its Southern lynch mobs, its Civil Rights opponents, its McCarthyism, etc.
Someone has to find a way to discuss it though. Not just race — our country is always talking about race in one superficial way or another — but the borders along which our society has violently contorted itself to normalize straight, white, male identity as the default against which the other is measured, oppressed, and controlled. Politically and artistically, our culture rarely presents a substantial version of this conversation to a wide audience and when such a conversation is deceptively presented for mass consumption, like, for instance, with Fight Club or Chappelle’s Show (yes, I’m serious), too many misinterpret the value of the medium. But if Obama was hoping to slowly pioneer such a conversation in the twilight of his final term or set the conditions to speak about it candidly afterward, he may have been beat to the punch a bit.
A few days before the president’s comments, the ABC network aired the first segment of a serialized version of the ESPN Films documentary O.J.: Made in America., which formerly premiered at Sundance in January. As a singular entity, Ezra Edelman’s 464 minute film is an astonishing achievement, a rare novelistic documentary destined to sit on the high shelf of cinematic literature. The famous O.J. Simpson trial, as we have seen from other filmic efforts and as many of us remember from the early 1990s, possesses its own narrative richness and a cast of fascinating characters that should serve as the envy of any aspiring playwright, and that all packs itself into the center of this documentary. But what’s more powerful and affecting is the way Edelman extends the boundaries 360 degrees around the biographical element, broadening and focusing the storytelling and journalistic scope through which we view the event so that its key player can be used to investigate the controlling weight of authoritarian European whiteness upon all other identities in the mid-to-late 20th and early 21st centuries in America.
The film, though airing to its national audience in five parts, might be more usefully considered as three distinct chapters. The first explores O.J.’s childhood in San Francisco’s housing projects, quickly follows him into his days as a college superstar at then-predominantly white University of Southern California (USC), and then into his most triumphant season in the NFL, wherein he rushed for an otherworldly record of 2,000 yards for the Buffalo Bills. The Juice in his collegiate phase of competition was singular-minded, striving for and expecting greatness and fame. His nationally recognized superstardom starts here, in the late 1960s right next door to the tail end of the Civil Rights movement in geography and historical placement. Edelman goes to great lengths to capture O.J.’s determined apoliticism, his cautious efforts to sterilize his image of any conscientious position as to not limit his eventual fan base. Simpson’s Civil Rights agnosticism is framed within archival footage of legendary athletes and outspoken activists Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Muhammad Ali and the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics (an event that Simpson actively declined to boycott when offered the opportunity to do so in support of Civil Rights).
Perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition here is the relationship between Muhammad Ali’s racial identity and O.J. Simpson’s. It is not something explicitly hammered within Made in America, but with the film’s national television release being the biggest sports story since the death of Muhammad Ali a few weeks earlier, it’s impossible not to measure how the trajectory of the boxer’s iconicism was the precise inversion of the football star’s. Ali was an athlete whose adherence to black identity by his own unreservedly expressed terms made him an unsettling figure to white America during his years of athletic and controversial spotlight, but American progress caught up decades later and 2016 allowed an entire nation to unilaterally express a touched up kinship in mourning the legendary prizefighter. Simpson, on the other hand, started his athletic career determinedly focused on building a white-accepted brand of his own black identity — attending a predominantly white school, keeping his interviews apolitical, and even going so far as to look for advice on “how to talk” during television and film appearances — only to be be completely orphaned by white culture decades later. Both projected identities, Ali’s in its rejection of and Simpson in its assimilation to white culture’s standards and rules, are still constructed, at least in part, in reaction or defense to whiteness’ position as the default.
The flimsiness of identity is a common theme throughout O.J.: Made in America. In the real world, identity is always a partially fictional and unstable construct, but, the film reminds us, the terms and conditions under which it can be established, expressed, and celebrated are always created by the default and assigned outward to the marginalized without compromise. This idea is explored subtextually even beyond blackness. When a friend of O.J.’s recalls seeing O.J.’s father in a robe with another robed man, quickly clarifying that “that” is the worst thing a black man can be, he’s speaking toward the terms and conditions defined by the default of heterosexuality and masculinity. When the transgender traffic reporter from the helicopter that initially filmed the Bronco chase compares O.J.’s lowliness in that moment with her own depressed phase during her transition, she’s acknowledging the terms and conditions established by cis-white America that lead to these sorts of personal falls. And when Marcia Clark, in poor taste, describes an editorial cartoon in which the unspeakable “n-word” is said to be “Nicole,” the attorney is correctly highlighting the lost voice of the female victim of alleged domestic violence, a common phenomenon when a conversation operates under the terms and conditions established by American males. Each of these examples of marginalized people not being permitted control of measuring their own identities marks a separate cultural shame, but yet, the film suggests that there is also something shameful about Simpson’s thorough and immediate acceptance of the assigned terms and conditions under which he developed his identity as a prominent black man.
Through the entire daunting runtime, there are few instances in which Edelman’s authorial voice feels textually accusatory. The film is threaded by a non-stop string of reactionary talking heads, countless witnesses, jurors, friends, attorneys, key players, minor players, non-players, each testimony refuting another with no cheap documentary tricks to elevate any voice as being truer than any other. To read O.J.: Made in America the way that it deserves to be read, one must always be surgically considering who is saying what and why at every moment, and even then, the pursuit can’t be to find a singular thesis or one true version of the story. Edelman exhibits next to no intention of stating presumption or cheaply editorializing. But one sequence, almost certain to go down as the most powerful and affecting from any film in 2016, interweaves clips of the announcement of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to heartbroken crowds with Bob Hope giving a lighthearted introduction of O.J. Simpson, celebrating the athletic standout for being politically inactive and not participating in sit-ins and protests. Here, it certainly feels like the filmmaker feels an uncontrollable frustration toward Simpson’s somewhat irresponsible inactivity.
Of course, individual judgment, either by Edelman or his audience, is a moot point once the film turns its attention to the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman and the subsequent trial. From the white Bronco chase sequence onward, Simpson’s comfortable white culture license was revoked and he was exiled to pariah status. Meanwhile, any frustration within black culture about Simpson’s avoidance of all of their issues was almost completely forgiven and his likeness became symbolically repurposed. The subsequent trial is a goofy chess game of manipulative race politics in which only the most insulated segment of middle class America might find any level of profundity. The color-obsessed fervor of the jury selection, the intentional placement of a young black attorney to speak for the prosecution, the removal of photographs of O.J. with white friends from the walls of his house, and Johnny Cochran comparing a racist witness to Adolf Hitler – the urgency with which the race narrative was pursued by both parties in the O.J. trial works to illustrate that once cultural identities are controlled, then the terms of a cultural reality can be similarly controlled. The most insightful moments illustrating this within the film are those in which footage of disgusting moments of oppression and racially charged violence — the Rodney King beatings, the cold and essentially unpunished assassination of teen Latasha Harlins, the chilling recordings of Mark Fuhrman matter-of-factly confessing his racist ideology, his framing of suspects, and his police brutality — are paired with contemporary white voices attempting to justify the events, or at least shoehorn them somehow into a morally gray area. Then there are also moments of first-person justification; Fuhrman, in particular, seems apathetic toward his own indiscretions and openly mourns the removal of the chokehold as a legal police tactic. Some of Fuhrman’s peers openly defend the Rodney King beating as a justifiable police act.
Even with these blatant offenses of racist reasoning to defend glaringly criminal acts, it was difficult, at the time, to approach the distinct influence of institutional racism on general law enforcement and the case specifically. On several occasions, a conceptual contest of racial concern is dismissed by prosecutors and lawmakers as “pulling the race card.” It is important to note, in each case, who is using this imaginary card as a means of sidestepping accusation or evidence. Anyone who has attempted an online conversation about a race-peripheral topic can probably predict that anyone earnestly using the phrase is white. Of course, for white culture, the default position disallowing contest of its terms and conditions, there is never a need for a race card. We know from Andrew Jarecki’s documentary The Jinx last year that a prominent, wealthy white citizen on trial for unspeakable crimes is never positioned as a symbolic representative of their entire race. The readiness with which the idea of a “race card” is conjured up is more evidence of white culture’s position as the uncontested default.
And as all of this plays out in the clearest concrete portraiture of conceptual racial influence on the case that we have ever been offered, the third act of the film serves as a disorienting reminder that this is all carried on the back of a likely undeserving defendant. In documenting everything that happened after the murder case verdict, we learn that many of O.J.’s closest former friends and associates are wholly convinced of his guilt. As the impact of the murder is measured in the uncontrollably expressive anguish on the face of Fred Goldman, father of Ron, O.J.’s defending attorneys sidestep a direct answer any time they are pressed to state their personal belief in their client’s innocence. In the decade following his acquittal, it is clear that, in either event, O.J. Simpson is not a defensible person. Even those who stand by him and/or express affection for him post-trial seem to do so through a divorced appreciation for his possibly sociopathic and almost certainly narcissistic charm. But history has taught that martyrs are licensed as a means of social need more often than as a matter of personal deservedness. We know that the justice system’s stretching itself to seek revenge on O.J. in an unrelated case (“white justice,” snickers one of O.J.’s defenders) that the need for this conversation to play out in these terms was and is a great one.
There’s a rare moment in the final chapter of the film in which Edelman allows his voice to be heard on camera. He half accusingly observes and half inquires for confirmation that Civil Rights activist Danny Bakewell used the O.J. trial “for your cause.” Bakewell, without a thought, corrects him. “For our cause,” he sternly offers. Little is done with this moment in terms of editing and framing. The next segment kicks in with uncharacteristic quickness. Given that O.J.: Made in America is a start-to-finish masterclass in documentary editing and framing, this moment is therefore all the more necessary to revisit, perhaps the instant in which it all made sense to the filmmaking artist and his vision began to develop as a mental blueprint. It is in these same late stages that the filmic essay moves for the first time to a historical moment deeper back than the late-stage Civil Rights era. A montage of violent imagery and direct mention recalls the nation’s history of slavery, lynching, beatings, murder, rape, abuse, and hanging of black people. It happens very quickly, but it is as vital as any other piece in this tremendous volume of focused sociological study.
Last week, when President Obama referenced our country’s fear-inspired historical mistakes while speaking candidly toward his opponents, his message was pointed in a very specific direction: that of the presumptive Republican nominee to serve as his predecessor. Obama’s comments and Edleman’s film are introduced to a nation that has elected as one of two major party candidates a man who directly represents the most vile and infected razor edge of whiteness in America, a man who has alluded to or directly stated terrifyingly fascist plans to build a border wall, to turn away immigrants coming from specific regions of conflict, to search places of non-Christian worship, and to remove American citizens of specific decent in an effort to fulfill his campaign slogan promise to “Make America Great Again.” Not surprisingly, analysis shows that the most popular demographic within Trump’s support base is the white male.
But this current campaign, retrospectively, wasn’t unforeseeable. The current decade has seen marginalized people find platforms for their voices more effectively than ever before, but for every major proclamation or step of progress, there is a two-fold obstacle to the forward achievement: within the far right an equally powerful refutation expressed through violent language or worse and within white liberals a dilution of the proper voices through over-zealous sponsorship anchored by self-protective feet dragging. O.J.: Made in America, ultimately, offers a powerful artifact that forces all of these elements into the conversation, not through accusation, but through objectively documenting them in highlighted action.
It seems that any conversation about O.J. always boils down to the question “Was justice served?” But justice is another one of those flimsy terms whose use-by-use definition can only be determined by evaluating subjective context. In the vacuum of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murder, where justice has to mean “a deserved punishment,” then, no, it was not served. But with a broader definition, wherein “justice” is more of an abstract balance of moral equitableness within our society, it becomes an even harder question to answer. What equation could allow us to balance decades of institutional abuse, corruption, and oppression toward black citizens with two victims whose vicious murders have gone completely unpunished? This is the task that the murder trial of O.J. Simpson has presented the American people for over two decades now: to take these two injustices and find a way to turn them into justice by its broader definition. But O.J.: Made in America rightly suggests that we have yet to earn or deserve that form of justice.
Featured Image: ESPN