OJ: Made in America

When I first heard of its existence, few things sounded less appealing to me than a nearly 8 hour long documentary about OJ Simpson.  I didn’t see the need for a rehash of a story that has already been done to death a hundred times over.  I was wrong.  This is an extremely important movie, and the story of OJ is more relevant than ever.  Don’t be deceived by the ESPN: Films label.  This is no shoddy sports biography, and it’s no true crime exploitation fodder, and it’s no mere rehash.  It is many things, but first and foremost it is an epic examination of the last 50 years of race relations in America, viewed through the lens of OJ’s life.  It is not bogged down with every tiresome detail of the murder trial.  Kato Kaelin is barely mentioned.  Much more time is spent on the Rodney King beating and LA riots.  The film strives to provide the OJ story with the fullest possible context for understanding its significance in American history.   It deals extensively in details, but these details are curated for relevance to the big picture.  I can’t think of a film that deals with race in contemporary America more insightfully.

I refer to it as a film, but there has been some controversy about whether it is a film or a television miniseries.  This controversy seems based in confusion.  It needn’t be the case that it belongs determinately to either category.  It has features of both, and evaluating it as an instance of either is legitimate.  I definitely experienced it as more a film than a miniseries.  I think of a TV documentary miniseries as utilitarian in composition: we are being delivered information, and the style of delivery is less important than its efficiency for achieving that purpose.  This work is highly stylized and creates an immersive experience. Moreover, I think of a miniseries as divided into parts that are separated by some break in continuity.   OJ: Made in America flows.  Its five partitions are set at natural transition points in the story, but there are no breaks in continuity.  If the partition titles were removed, I never would think of the film as consisting of five discrete parts.  If my viewing companion hadn’t fallen asleep, I would have stayed up all night and watched the whole thing in one sitting.  I ended up watching it over two sittings.

The film does a remarkable job highlighting what a twisted coil of irony the whole shitshow has been.  OJ, the film argues, was the first black celebrity to fully adopt—and be adopted by—the myth of a colorblind, post-racial America.   White sports fans loved OJ, and they loved to say that OJ “transcended” race.   The movie presents a rich and insightful examination of what that bullshit is supposed to mean, and of OJ himself as a black man who bought the bootstrapping narrative hook, line and sinker, and did everything he could to disassociate his identity from blackness until he found himself in the clutches of the justice system.

The brilliant, brutal irony at the film’s core is the way in which OJ’s trial completely inverted the generic black American experience of the justice system, while at the same time being apprehended as standing in for the generic black experience.   By the time the trial reached its conclusion, what was really being litigated was the failure of the justice system for black people in America, while the man on trial didn’t for most of his life think of himself as black, didn’t live a life that was representative of the experience of the majority of black Americans, had millions of dollars to hire a dream team of lawyers, and had his case heard by an almost entirely black jury in a predominately black district.    But The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the ultimate layer of irony leaves OJ to finally to be treated like any old black man by the justice system as he ends up on trial in Santa Monica (i.e., before a white jury and white judge) for a bizarre sports memorabilia robbery years after being acquitted for murder.  He was sentenced to a vastly disproportionate 33 years that he is still serving today.

Towards the end of Part 3 of OJ: Made in America, there’s an extended examination of a particularly striking moment from the omnibus hearing.  Christopher Darden, a black attorney asked to join the prosecution team once it had been established that the jury would be mostly black, is seeking to disallow evidence relating to Mark Fuhrman’s use of the ‘n’ word.  He argues that black jurors will have a visceral reaction to the officer’s use of the word, and this visceral reaction will predispose them to believe that he framed Simpson.   Johnnie Cochran responds with personal indignation, acknowledging Darden as a friend and then taking him to task not as the prosecutor of the case, but rather as a brother who’s just sold out to The Man.   The presentation of this episode and the overlain analysis is impressively nuanced.  How can Cochran adopt such stark indignation when he is in fact doing everything he can to turn the case into a referendum on the LAPD’s race problems and this is exactly why he wants the officer’s use of slurs presented as evidence?  Because Darden’s argument imagines that black people are affected by the ‘n’ word in a way that white people are never affected by any word: they are rendered unable to reason objectively–unable to bring any considerations to bear except raw mistrust of law enforcement.

Another potent segment revolves around the way DNA evidence figured in the case.  The DNA evidence against Simpson was overwhelming. As I recall, and as the film presents, once this evidence was presented the media and the majority of white people in America believed he was guilty.  His blood was all over the crime scene, dispersed in a manner consistent with an injury on his hand, and the blood of the victims was all over his car and home.  There’s a fucked up moment during the jury selection when present-day Marcia Clark explains that part  of the reason the prosecution was unhappy about the case being heard in downtown LA was that more intelligent jurors tended to be more open to DNA evidence (i.e., black  people  don’t understand DNA).   Her remarks on this matter, as well as the remarks of most of the other talking heads from law enforcement, strongly imply that the black jurors must have been so irrationally distrustful of police that they were prone to gullibly favor the defense’s conspiracy theories over hard scientific proof.  The film brilliantly undermines this narrative by developing extensive context regarding the history of relations between the LAPD and black communities to help the viewer understand that it didn’t require gullibility in this context to believe that cops would frame a black man for murdering a white woman. The film here delves into impressive detail about the power of a skilled lawyer.  F. Lee Bailey’s evisceration of Mark Fuhrman makes for great cinema.  As Chris Darden had preemptively complained about in the above-mentioned omnibus hearing, Bailey made a deliberate effort to evoke a visceral reaction from black jurors.  Standing before them as a gray haired, upper class white guy, he really fucking leaned into the word “NI__ER” over and over again as he questioned Fuhrman.  “Have you ever said ‘NI__ER’?  Are you sure you haven’t said ‘NI__ER’?  Are you absolutely positive you’ve never once uttered the word ‘NI__ER’?” Fuhrman was absolutely confident he was a good man.  And he believed that a good man couldn’t be a racist.  And so he concluded that he couldn’t be racist.  But only a racist would say that word, and so he clearly hadn’t said it.  The only problem was that there were recordings of him saying it. Bailey knew that this line of questioning would coax him to lie.  He knew that Fuhrman’s self-conception wouldn’t allow him to admit to his use of the word.  And he knew that catching him in a lie would–QUITE JUSTIFIABLY—plant the strong suspicion in the jurors that Fuhrman had framed OJ and lied about it.

At the same time, the film does not neglect to observe that only a lucky handful of black defendants could afford a defense like OJ’s, and so we are left with the suggestion that all of the abundant outrage that white America felt over OJ’s getting away with murder might better be directed at a justice system where the result frequently depends more on the defendant’s budget than the facts of the case.   If OJ were broke, F. Lee Bailey wouldn’t have given half a shit about his fate.

The Fuhrman tapes are quite something.  I had forgotten how vile they truly were.  Many of the talking heads in the film–and many people who I’ve heard remark on the case over the years—refer to OJ’s defense team as having played the “race card.”  These days this phrase is a social media bludgeon used to dismiss any explanatory relevance of race.   My sense is that this usage evolved from the way the term was deployed to deride Johnnie Cochran’s closing statement and the overall defense strategy.  I find this infuriating.  The race card wasn’t “played.”  Race was relevant!  The fucking detective is on tape espousing genocidal racism and bragging about wanton, racially motivated assault on the bodies and civil liberties of black people.  He bragged about framing black suspects!   The job of the defense attorney is to establish a reasonable doubt.  It would be grotesquely unethical NOT to argue that there is a plausible scenario where OJ was framed by a cop who bragged on tape about framing black people.  There’s a lot of disgust among the film’s pro-law enforcement talking heads about Cochran’s comparison of Fuhrman to Hitler.  I don’t think this was the best way to make the relevant point, but Cochran’s critics here misrepresent what he said.  He didn’t simply compare Fuhrman to Hitler.  He said that the threat of Hitler was underestimated.  No one did anything about it because they didn’t take it seriously enough.  Cochran suggested that the tendency to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt is analogous to early complacence about the threat of Hitler.  He argued that if we give cops like Fuhrman the benefit of the doubt, we are complicit in an atrocity that will continue to grow.  AND HE WAS RIGHT!   This is not to say that OJ was framed or even that he should have been found not guilty, but rather that Cochran’s general point—abstracting from the hyperbolic Godwinian invocation of Hitler—has turned out to be quite accurate.  Law enforcement has continued to receive the benefit of the doubt.  Overwhelming evidence of vast racial inequality in our justice system has been flatly ignored and we find ourselves in a position where we have by far the most extensive carceral state of any nation in the history of the world and black citizens suffer the brunt of it.   Today Mark Fuhrman is a paid commentator on Fox News, brought in by Megyn Kelly and others to preach to the choir about how if a dead black man had simply complied with a cop’s illegal order he would still be alive and it’s as simple as that.  Given that what Mark Fuhrman is famous for is being caught on tape saying horribly racist shit and bragging about being able to mistreat black citizens with impunity it’s worth thinking about why Fox puts him in this role.  White resentment towards OJ runs deep.  That motherfucker played the race card and he got away with murder because of it.  The race card was played against Mark Fuhrman in particular, and so spite towards OJ leads to sympathy with his antagonist.  A Fox viewer shakes his head and passes judgment on the Baltimore riot, “It’s just so tragic to burn down your own community, MLK Jr. must be rolling in his grave.”  Mark Fuhrman is a living symbol of police brutality.  Someone who believes there is no such thing as police brutality is given the opportunity to express this belief simply by sitting on the couch and nodding along with Fuhrman.  The politically correct thing to do is treat Fuhrman as a pariah.  Fox presents its viewers with an opportunity to rebel against political correctness. Treating someone who has been so aggressively demonized as a racist as though they are a valuable commentator on law enforcement and race in America is way of rejecting the public consciousness that branded him a racist.

Towards the end of the film’s portrayal of the trial, a remarkable statistic is presented.  By the end of the trial, about 75% of black Americans believed OJ was innocent, whereas about 75% of white Americans believe he was guilty.  As the film highlights, widespread belief in his innocence among black Americans was not explained by ignorance about DNA and gullibility as much as it was by a long, traumatic history of being mistreated by law enforcement and the justice system.  The film suggests that after he was acquitted, a lot of OJ’s black supporters were fine with the possibility that he was actually guilty, and were overjoyed that this time a black man was the one getting away with it.  It was cultural payback for the Rodney King verdict and the long history of injustice that it came to represent.  The film also reminds us of how intense the vitriol towards OJ from white America has been.  Lots of obviously guilty murderers are running around free, but usually no one takes time out of their day to go protest them while they play golf.  They did for OJ.  For years after the trial he couldn’t go anywhere without a horde of angry white ladies putting signs in his face about how he’s a murderer and wife-beater.   Why did OJ in particular hit such a nerve?  The film’s answer is that it’s because of the singular, central position his story occupies in the clusterfuck of American identity politics.

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