O.J. Simpson, American icon: Why the football star turned accused killer is one of the 20th century's most important cultural figures

ESPN's amazing O.J. Simpson documentary blends football, murder, race and L.A. into an epic American tragedy

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 11, 2016 4:00PM (EDT)

Murder defendant O.J. Simpson tries on glove, June 15, 1995 (Sam Mircovich/AP)
Murder defendant O.J. Simpson tries on glove, June 15, 1995 (Sam Mircovich/AP)

Considering how obsessed America was with O.J. Simpson during the 1990s, what struck me most about the epic, five-part ESPN Films documentary “O.J.: Made in America” was how little I had ever really thought about O.J. Simpson. He’s more than a celebrity athlete who committed two murders and got away with it, at least as nearly everyone sees it 20-odd years later. (I don’t believe it’s possible to libel Simpson at this stage.) He is more than the flashpoint and central figure of a stark racial drama, set in America’s most divided city, the capital of image and illusion.

In this magnificent work of journalism and storytelling from producer and director Ezra Edelman, which now belongs on the short list of the greatest television documentaries ever made, O.J. Simpson becomes something more specific and also much bigger. From here he looks like a 20th-century cultural figure of enormous symbolic importance, along with Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Sacrilege? I don't know: They were all immensely talented and damaged people, and so was he. (Simpson isn't dead, of course, but the talent is in the rear-view mirror.) At his peak, he was nearly as famous and as beloved as any of those three, and he fell much harder and much faster, to depths of self-destruction they never reached.

Simpson is also the protagonist or antihero of an operatic tragedy too implausible for fiction; if Don DeLillo or Theodore Dreiser had invented his story it would seem laughable. He’s a real-life, African-American Horatio Alger and Jay Gatsby, all rolled into one, the star and creator of his own gruesome melodrama. He’s living proof that America is the land of opportunity and the land of limitless self-delusion, where everyone is free to reinvent themselves and then, with almost Sophoclean inevitability, to destroy themselves. In Edelman’s grand retelling of Simpson’s life story, he holds no one innocent, least of all his central subject. But as the film’s title makes clear, we created O.J. and nurtured him, and he could never have become what he was or done what he did if we hadn’t loved him.

If the sleazy but gripping FX miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson” framed Simpson’s infamous 1995 murder trial as a cruel farce of bad intentions gone wrong, Edelman paints a more ambitious picture on a larger canvas. While ESPN’s documentary unit has long since moved past the hackneyed conventions of sports movies, “O.J.: Made in America” pushes that transcendence to extraordinary heights. While you can’t judge a filmmaker by his background, Edelman is well positioned to survey the strange racial dynamics of Simpson’s story. Edelman himself is biracial, the son of Children’s Defense Fund founder (and Hillary Clinton mentor) Marian Wright Edelman and Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman. I haven’t seen his earlier films about the relationship between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or the Brooklyn Dodgers (because I don't particularly care about those things), but now I want to.

In most respects, the formal device that this is a movie by a sports network about the rise and fall of a sports hero lends a depth and nuance to “O.J.: Made in America” that other accounts of the Simpson drama lack. Jeffrey Toobin, author of “The Run of His Life” — the definitive account of the Simpson trial and the principal basis for the FX miniseries — grew up as a football fan and had seen Simpson play. That book definitely reflects an awareness of how important Simpson’s football stardom was in the overall narrative of his life, and how the end of his athletic career fueled a gradual process of personal decay. But Edelman’s movie reminds us that O.J. wasn’t just a superior athlete but a magical one, who could make the bruising, grinding game of football, played on a frozen plastic field in Buffalo, look like ballet or the exploits of Spider-Man.

In those days before smartphones and coast-to-coast scouting, O.J. Simpson seemingly emerged out of nowhere as a freshman at City College of San Francisco in the mid-1960s, where grainy black-and-white video clips show him bursting through overmatched junior-college defenses with dazzling grace and speed. (I grew up in the Bay Area long after Simpson had left, but everywhere he had lived or played football still seemed charged with the residue of sainthood.) Building his tale incrementally with dozens of interviews and period footage, Edelman demonstrates how rapidly Simpson went from the dismal Potrero Hill projects in San Francisco’s southeastern corner — yes, that now-precious city actually had a ghetto in those days — to a world of privilege, affluence and celebrity as a football star at USC, the bedrock institution of wealth and power in Los Angeles.

It wasn’t just that USC was a predominantly white school whose luxurious campus sat right next to the sprawling black and Latino neighborhoods of South L.A., although Simpson surely noticed that. Most elite private universities were largely white at the time, but USC was a blindingly white enclave of Nixonian, Republican, all-American wholesomeness, whose graduates moved on to the worlds of banking and law and business and the executive suites of the Hollywood studios and TV networks. It was perhaps the only large college campus outside the South that saw no major civil-rights demonstrations or anti-Vietnam rallies during the late ‘60s. USC students had fathers who could pull strings or write checks to get them out of the draft, and they certainly had no interest in overturning the system they stood to inherit.

What O.J. Simpson evidently learned, as the greatest player in the USC Trojans' storied history, was how to parlay his immense athletic talent and affable personality into a level of stardom that transcended race, or at least appeared to. Several of his friends remember him insisting that he wasn’t really black — he was O.J., which was something else. Apparently he felt gratified when a woman at a USC alumni dinner told her friends, “Look! There’s O.J., sitting with all those n****ers!” She may have lumped his friends together under a hateful epithet, but she didn’t see him that way. Simpson never discussed racial issues or any other potentially controversial topics, and never associated with activist African-American sports figures like Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or sociologist Harry Edwards (an important interview subject in the film).

But “O.J.: Made in America” isn’t just telling the paradoxical story of a black celebrity who insulated himself in whiteness, marrying a beautiful white woman and surrounding himself with rich white friends and living in the whitest neighborhood of Los Angeles, until he became black again as the defendant in the most famous American murder trial of the last century. It also recounts the tormented racial history of O.J.’s adopted hometown, whose booming economy and balmy climate attracted African-Americans by the hundreds of thousands during the postwar period, many of them believing they were leaving the segregated South behind for a land of equal opportunity. Instead they found a sprawling metropolis whose de facto segregation was at least as vicious as Jim Crow, and whose overwhelmingly white police department understood itself as an occupying army decades before the recent wave of military-style law enforcement.

I never found that the FX series offered us a way into O.J. Simpson — I don’t mean the question of whether O.J. “did it,” which is so obvious as to be meaningless, but the question of what sort of person he is and how to think about him. Edelman, on the other hand, builds a complex portrait of O.J. the person and O.J. the public figure, rich in detail that is simultaneously compassionate and damning. It’s rather too easy, in hindsight, to say that O.J. looks like a profoundly damaged personality and quite likely a sociopath. But long before the events of 1994, people who knew him well understood his public persona as a skillful performance. Going clear back to Potrero Hill and Galileo High School, his friends remember a player and an operator, the kind of guy who could steal a friend’s girl or blame others for his misdeeds.

Simpson’s personal pattern of hypocrisy or pathology or duplicity was not merely nurtured by the white corporate suits and media personalities who surrounded him — it’s a stereotype, but he served as “cool black friend” to any number of powerful white men — but encouraged and embraced. There are many agonizing moments in “O.J.: Made in America,” but one of the worst comes in an interview Simpson did around 1990 with ESPN host Roy Firestone, who repeatedly expresses amazement that anyone could possibly view the Juice as a “bad guy,” just because he had been arrested on New Year's Eve for beating the crap out of his wife and threatening to kill her. After all, he’s in Hertz commercials! He’s a major shareholder in HoneyBaked Ham! He owns three Ramada Inn franchises! How could he be a domestic abuser?

By that point, the fact that Nicole Brown Simpson had repeatedly called the cops on her husband, and had taken numerous Polaroids of her facial injuries, was an open secret in Los Angeles. The chances that Firestone hadn’t heard about those incidents were pretty much nil. But he positively burbles with delight at his central role in Simpson’s damage-control project, all but throwing himself on the floor and washing O.J.’s feet to prove that the wholesome celebrity we thought we knew was in fact identical to the private person. It surely wasn’t journalism, and even by the standards of jock-sniffing sports TV it was more like fellatio than puffery. It took some degree of corporate courage for ESPN to call itself out for that shameful display, even after all this time.

In the final two-plus episodes of “O.J.: Made in America” the bizarre and catastrophic cultural carnival of the Simpson murder trial and its aftermath, which is more familiar but remains hard to believe, inevitably takes center stage. But Edelman never loses sight of his grand narrative thrust, which is that the strange career of Orenthal James Simpson and the violent social drama of race in Los Angeles were on a collision course, and the story of that collision was about much more than one man or one murder trial or one city or the specific racial divide of 1995. One of the reasons that Firestone clip is so painful is that it’s difficult to avoid looking at him groveling before this famous, handsome, charismatic American icon and thinking, Yeah, we all did that.

O.J. Simpson thought he could reinvent himself as an all-American hero and leave his skin color behind, and he was wrong. White society and the white corporate elite embraced the transfigured, nonracial O.J. as proof positive (long before Barack Obama) that racism and bigotry had been left behind, and proved the opposite instead. African-Americans, en masse, embraced a man who had visibly rejected his own community and done his best to become white, and who had almost certainly committed a heinous crime. The Los Angeles Police Department, already tainted by decades of racist misconduct, quite likely framed a guilty man (such has long been my interpretation, and there's nothing here to contradict that) and absolutely, definitely screwed up his case from beginning to end. A trial that with almost any other defendant would have been open-and-shut became a public racial psychodrama, revealing to many whites — myself included — that African-Americans and white Americans perceived and inhabited different national realities.

You may have seen the clips from Simpson’s 2013 parole hearing that Edelman uses in the opening minutes of his seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus. As we learn in the final episode, Simpson is serving a life sentence at a prison in the remote Nevada desert, a grossly inflated punishment for an inept sports-memorabilia scam he tried to pull in Las Vegas. He appears as a beefy, graying, mildly confused old man, gamely trying to scrape together a few fragments of the old O.J. charm. (He may indeed be released next year, at age 70.) No matter what you think about O.J. Simpson, as a murderer who got away with it or a symbol of racial injustice or a cautionary tale of celebrity or whatever else, it’s impossible not to see him as he once was and as he is now without a profound sense of tragedy and pathos.

O.J. Simpson always wanted to be an American hero, as one of his oldest friends from the San Francisco projects puts it. He wanted the story to be about him, and he was smart enough and brazen enough and talented enough that it worked for a while. Now he’s an irrelevant old dude in a prison jumpsuit, a distant memory painful to all, and we can see that O.J.’s story was never about O.J. It was about us.

”O.J.: Made in America” begins Saturday on ABC, with subsequent episodes to air on ESPN and home video to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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