When you look back over 2016 what do you think you will remembered it for? Perhaps as the year Ryan Lochte fabricated an elaborate heist story to cover up the fact he vandalized a toilet, or maybe as the year Taylor Swift accused Kim and Kanye of ‘character assassination.’ Of course it was also the year Beyonce released her highly acclaimed album 'Lemonade,' which offered a bold challenge to a culture still steeped in racism and, lest we forget, it was also the year that Bobby Brown insisted he’d had sex with a ghost.
Now what if I were to tell you that all of these events were inextricably linked, not as part of a complex illuminati plot, but because of the actions of one man in Brentwood, LA on the night of June 12 1994. Twenty two years later, 2016 will not be remembered as the year of Lochte, Taylor, Kim, Kanye, Beyonce or Bobby. 2016 will be remembered as the year of O.J.Simpson.
For the past two decades, the common understanding surrounding that fateful night is as follows: O.J. brutally murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman outside her home. He tried to escape arrest in a televised car chase down the 405 Freeway, put on some apparently ill-fitting black gloves in a court room and, even though the evidence against him was staggering, he got away with it.
Fast forward to 2007 and he entered the public conscious yet again, but this time he wasn’t so lucky, getting charged with thirty three years for a bizarre pre-meditated robbery in a Vegas hotel room. Case closed, justice prevailed, retribution finally served. But this is only a small fraction of the colossal narrative which surrounds O.J, an overview which misses the subtle, and the not so subtle nuances of what makes his story so astoundingly relevant for today.
Queue some excellent, on-point programming from FX and ESPN. Following O.J.’s robbery sentence in 2007, ESPN commissioned the documentary June 17th 1994, which offered a look at numerous poignant sporting events which occurred while O.J. was busy attempting to avoid arrest in that infamous police chase down an LA freeway. Airing in June 2010, ESPN’s executive producer Connor Schell realized the monumental implications of the story surrounding O.J. which as of yet, hadn’t been properly explored. In 2014, Schell met with Ezra Edelman and together they came up with the concept for O.J.: Made in America, a five part mini series which, as Ezra told Sports Illustrated:
"uses that canvas [O.J.’s 1995 trial] to tell a deeper story about race in America, about the city of Los Angeles, the relationship between the black community and the police, and who O. J. was and his rise to celebrity.”
Similarly, in early 2014, it was announced that FX had commissioned a ten-part TV show titled American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson, which, unlike ESPN’s ambitious documentary mini-series, would be a fictionalized reenactment of O.J.’s murder trial including big stars, Cuba Gooding Jr., John Travolta, Sarah Paulson and David Schwimmer. To most, this seemed like overkill. What was it about O.J.’s story that could possibly make two rival channels go head-to-head screening what appeared to be essentially the same story, to a consumer already drowning in quality, varied content? But, just like Apple or Paul the Octopus before them, FX and ESPN were clearly tapping into the zeitgeist in a way that we were yet to fully comprehend, or even begin to imagine.
Not only do O.J.: Made in America and American Crime Story tell O.J.’s story in completely different formats, they also establish completely different focuses. In essence, American Crime Story pinpoints O.J.’s trial as the focal point of their fictionalized narrative, O.J.:Made in America presents what is essentially a breathtaking longitudinal study of the complex issues lying beneath the surface of the trial; O.J. becomes the framework from which to explore the myriad of labyrinthine issues which encompass him. Phew. In summary, both series’ compliment each other perfectly, but if I were asked to only suggest one, it’d be O.J.:Made in America and that’s because it deftly examines why O.J.’s story is so relevant to understanding where we are today. Let’s take a more in-depth look at why.
O.J. Was The American Dream
Few things sound more American than the story of a impoverished young boy growing up in the projects in San Fransisco, who reaches football stardom in his University team before launching into a career in the NFL, racking up a series of lucrative endorsements along the way and becoming a household name. Insert white picket fence, a wife, two children and a dog here and things are on track for that most coveted ‘happily ever after.’ Needless to say, things did not work out quite as hoped.
First of all, there was the small issue of race at hand. As O.J.: Made in America artfully shows, while O.J. was busy lifting the Heisman Trophy in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had only recently been assassinated and a law had only just been passed making it illegal to prohibit renting or selling property to a person because of the color of their skin.
Fortunately, by the time the '70s and O.J.'s NFL career really began to take off, O.J. had decided to distance himself from all black politics entirely, unlike his other sporting peers Muhammed Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. This allowed him to fit seamlessly into white America’s vision of him as an all American hero, and enabled him to continue to embody the American Dream — as a fellow white man. The separation of O.J. from the color of his skin is immortalized by a phrase commonly attributed to him, that we hear Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. yell in American Crime Story:
In this one, deeply disturbing line, we can find the tangible threads of an already fraying American dream. Not only does it depict both O.J. and the American Dream to be simultaneously deluded, tussling with a deep-rooted self-hatred and hypocritically racist, it also reveals an unnerving sense of entitled narcissism which is seemingly justified by ‘making it.'
Secondly, O.J.’s incredible fall from grace mirrors the well documented fall of America from land of the free to land of the divided — a fall well documented by the likes of Fitzgerald, Ralph Ellison and Lorraine Hansberry. We are currently living in the aftermath of the death of this dream, and O.J. is symptomatic of a world in which such illusions no longer exist.
While not a victim to his surroundings (I refuse to remove any responsibility for the murders of Nicole and Ron away from him), he clearly struggled with what it meant to make ‘it’ when ‘it’ is nothing but an empty, hollow illusion. This is explored to perfection in the fifth and final episode of O.J.:Made in America in which we see O.J. battling to make sense of his post-trial life by engaging in a series of strange decisions and ultimately ending in his conviction in an almost inexplicably peculiar ‘robbery.’ Think Charlie Sheen adopting a flamingo, Dennis Rodman marrying himself or Courtney Love.
Which leads us onto our next point:
O.J. Created Celebrity As We Know It
After O.J. retired as an American footballer, and before he got away with murder, he worked for a while as a sideline reporter before melting into that ubiquitous hemisphere of characters we’re so familiar with in modern day who are famous simply for being famous.
Among the bouquet of perks that come along with such notoriety, O.J. decided, like R.Kelly, Oscar Pistorius, Charlie Sheen and Ryan Lochte after him, to abuse his ‘get out of jail free’ card to incredible lengths. This allowed him to evade any punishment for brutally attacking Nicole numerous times, to the extent that she confided in those around her that she feared for her life.
From the moment O.J. was publicly announced as a suspect in the double homicide, the celebrity circus which we’re now deadened to exploded onto television sets the world over and became a collective cultural phenomena. The catalyst for this started with his televised car chase, which turned into a farcical police escort down Freeway 405 in a bid to escape his impending arrest. With an abundance of reporters flying overhead in helicopters, O.J. was televised from a birdseye view across the world and the execs at NBC who were currently live-streaming the NBA finals made the unprecedented decision to switch their feed over to O.J.’s fleeing attempt, minimizing this nationally important game to a small box in the corner.
This seemingly simple gesture defined the spectacle that was to come. By prioritizing O.J. over an entire sporting final of gargantuan significance, the execs at NBC in effect decided that the public interest in celebrity far out weighed all else. Flip to June 7, 2016 and which of these two things do you remember: The US Supreme Court agreeing to hear death penalty charges, or Bobby Brown telling the world about his sexual supernatural encounter?
The trial was consequently a ridiculous farce with all those involved becoming overnight celebrity sensations, and is arguably the genesis of reality TV as we know it today.
This of course becomes even more ironic given that one of the central figures in O.J.’s trial was Robert Kardashian, ex-husband of Kris Jenner and father to Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob, the relentless spawn-merchants of reality TV. This is made even more surreal when it is revealed in O.J.:Made In America that just before going out to commit armed robbery in Las Vegas, O.J. caught some of the newly debuting show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and remarked:
Even though the format which he in essence created had since outgrown him, Made in America expertly delves into the dark trappings of fame, and it’s repercussions for O.J. In the final episode of the mini series we see him participating in a hopelessly cringeworthy Punk-d like hidden camera show entitled Juiced, with the opening episode depicting him as a rapping pimp, surrounded by topless women. Along with becoming a ridiculous parody of himself, we learn of his addictions to drugs, alcohol and women whilst also realizing that he is on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention his absurd endorsement of the now cancelled-edition book titled ‘If I did it,’ becoming yet another face on the never ending conveyer belt of celebrity casualties.
O.J’s Story Needed Time To Be Fully Comprehendable
At once a sporting documentary, political satire, a horror story, a crime drama and a reality TV show, O.J.’s story was quite simply too overwhelming to fully grapple with, and understand fully at the time. In addition, it's only now that we finally have a format in which the story can be properly told. Refusing to sit nicely into a two hour feature film format, or into a culture unused to binge-watching, the depth of O.J’s story was previously doomed to be made drastically shallow. Speaking to TV Guide about this peculiarity and the inherent race politics at the heart of the trial, Caroline Waterlow the producer of Made In America stated:
"There's a change in ways in which people are consuming these things. So the idea of something long and in-depth is actually not as hard to get out there as it was, maybe. People are up for it….I think that the white community has a much better idea [today] of the distrust that was expressed at the time by so many black people. And I think white people are more ready to understand right now than they were back then. ... It's kind of remarkable how much more you can understand something with some distance than I think any of us were able to fully understand it at the time.”
It is only with this hindsight that we are fully able to understand quite how dramatically O.J.’s story changed the cultural landscape. In many ways, his story is a particularly poignant one as it holds up a mirror to who we are today, and actually shows we haven’t changed much.
With the not-guilty verdict largely being attributed to a sense of retribution against the LAPD by a largely black jury for all the countless criminal offenses committed against black people by the LAPD who either got off scot-free or who remained largely unaccounted for, we can hear the echoes of The Black Lives Matter movement, set up precisely because this kind of terrible, racist violence is still prevalent today — as Beyonce’s track Forward painfully acknowledges.
This also rings true for the absent voice of Nicole who represents thousands upon thousands of women who are the victims of domestic abuse everyday, and are not receiving the help they so desperately need.
O.J.’s story is therefore one of great glory and great shame, of the delicately thin line between the famous and the infamous, of truth, lies and an emotive pull towards something beyond logic and reason which roots itself in anger against broken dreams, broken systems and broken souls. As O.J.:Made In America shows us time and time again, this story far extends beyond O.J. the man as it skillfully embodies the sentiments of of journalist Celia Farber in the final episode of the show:
O.J.:Made in America is available, now, on Hulu.com.