“The Juice”: the once-worshipped American football legend and the man whose double-homicide trial divided a nation.
In the darkness of Linsly-Chittenden Hall on September 25th, the first part of the epic
8-hour long documentary, O.J.: Made in America, began to play. It opens with O.J. stating that it was not money he was after, “it was fame.” O.J. Simpson wanted “to be the best,” and a montage begins rolling, showcasing snippets of “Hey, there goes O.J.!”—as tribute to the adoration, worship, and envy that O.J. once held, not only at his alma mater, the University of Southern California, but also in the hearts of American citizens everywhere.
In a speaker event hosted by Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, Yale screened Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America over the course of three days, from September 25 through 27. After the last day’s screening, Edelman, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming for O.J.: Made in America, arrived for a Q&A session, first with his hosts and later with audience members.
An eight-hour documentary, the film covers the infamous O.J. Simpson’s life: from his childhood years to his eventual imprisonment for a Las Vegas armed robbery over sports memorabilia in 2007. However, Edelman’s film not only chronicles Simpson’s life but also investigates the sociopolitical climate of post-1950s America.
The documentary first focuses not on O.J.’s famous murder trial—what most of today’s college undergraduates associate the former NFL star with—but “The Run,” a 64-yard touchdown run which made O.J. an “instant national star.” Immediately after, however, the film weaves the broader themes of race in America into the narrative, discussing how the populace perceived Los Angeles as a city of opportunity for African Americans in a country heavily wrought with racial tensions. As mentioned in the documentary, a civil rights activist in Los Angeles once said, “If you are going to be a Negro in a big city, then Los Angeles is the best place to be.” However, as an interviewee explains, racism was actually as “stark as it was in the deep South.”
The director discussed the experience of being emotionally engaged with “this episode and this history,” as a person of color who followed the 8-month-long trial and glimpsed first-hand the verdict visibly dividing America upon racial lines. Edelman explained that the documentary now enables him to reference Simpson to people who may not have been old enough during the trial and the height of Simpson’s fame to understand it fully.
While the documentary chronicles O.J.’s rise and fall, it also investigates the larger issue of racial injustice at hand. The film particularly highlights the beating of Rodney King, in which King, a young Black man, was brutally beaten by the LAPD in 1991. The incident sparked riots after the police officers involved were absolved of any wrongdoing. Edelman expressed that knew he needed to dwell on the Rodney King case to show that this story was not solely grounded in O.J.—he wanted the audience to think “oh… [they were] in for something bigger than this thing.”
However, O.J.: Made in America also touches upon Simpson’s refusal to publicly fight for racial justice, unlike other black athletes, who sacrificed some career success to express support for racial equality. Joe Bell, Simpson’s childhood friend, describes how Simpson was “seduced by white society” and drawn into the “glamour and glitz.” Simpson distances himself from the civil rights movement, explaining that “[I’m] not black; I’m O.J.”. Simpson’s refusal to engage with social causes seems especially conspicuous now, considering the recent wave of NFL players and athletes who have protested the National Anthem in order to promote racial justice.
A quintessential example of O.J.’s white-washed image was his commercial for Hertz. In it, O.J. represents the fast, all-American, athlete superstar, running through an airport. This ad became extremely successful, because it appealed to not only minorities but also white consumers. For African Americans, O.J.’s appearance in this commercially effective ad presented a successful role model for the Black community. For white Americans, O.J. Simpson simply represented the All-American athlete success story, likely because the media and himself stripped him of any relationship to the black community.
Former Hertz CEO, Frank Olson, explains “For us, O.J. was colorless.”
Simpson reached a high in celebrity as he carried the torch in the 1984 Olympics, hosted celebrities in all fields regularly in his Brentwood estate, and acted in numerous films. In fact, people originally perceived O.J. and Nicole as the “ideal couple.”
Yet, as the narrative moves forward, O.J. Simpson’s deterioration becomes evident in his domestic violence. Edelman drew a comparison, discussing how the devolution of Nicole and O.J.’s marriage into conflict and domestic violence created this “weird dance” with the “violence that black folks in LA were suffering at the hands of the police.” He calls the film “the ultimate American studies paper” as it combines a wide range of the social issues that wracked America in the last 50 years.
The case entangles gender and racial politics, as Brown and Simpson’s marriage was riddled with domestic abuse, but these incidents were usually dismissed by police because of Simpson’s celebrity. Reflecting the decades of Simpson and Brown, few–even policing authorities–took serious, legal note of any domestic violence, relegating it to a private family matter, turning a blind eye to the violence inflicted upon Brown until it was too late.
After horrific accounts of O.J.’s stalking and continual violence, the film hones in on the murder scene of Brown and her friend, Ron Goldman, and the long, publicized trial that ensued. We learn about the drama, the tension, the national and international stage in which this case occupied. As Simpson first runs from his arrest, we see old recordings of the police chase from the CBS helicopter. Reporter Zoey Tur describes excitement in covering the story, as “very few people have fallen so far,” yet explains that since Simpson“ transcended race and color…to this exalted state of celebrity, he got a motorcade,” otherwise he’d be “on the ground getting clubbed.”
Even in the chase, however, videos depict masses of spectators cheering and holding signs with “Free OJ” or “We love OJ.”
At the same time, the film notes how gender politics emerged—though more subtly—in the case through the construction of the auditory and visual evidence of Brown’s repeated, severe domestic abuse and violence. One of the female interviewees, Juror #2 in the Simpson case, admits “I definitely felt for Nicole,” when presented with this evidence.
The “not-guilty” verdict sparked enormous reaction from the world, especially dividing the black and white community. Reaction videos of African American communities celebrating and white communities weeping illustrate the stark racial division in America.
Edelman’s documentary argues that People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson became “the trial of the century,” describing both one man’s epic fall from grace and the underlying racial, sexual, and political tensions in the United States. The director emphasized that this is “one of the great yarns in the modern American history.”
“It’s everything: race, class, violence, sex, celebrity…”