1995: The year the future began
Amid the glowing, even fawning reviews of ESPN’s docu-series about O.J. Simpson, herewith a dissenting view.
The first of five installments of O.J.: Made in America aired last night, but failed to make a compelling case as to why now we should we even care about Simpson. He was an outstanding running back in college and professional football, many years ago. He starred in memorable TV ads as a pitchman for Hertz rental car, many years ago. He cultivated wealth and fame while side-stepping issues of race and civil rights, once declaring, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.”
None of those factors explains why Simpson’s biography merits the nearly eight hours of film treatment that ESPN has prepared as part of its “30 for 30” documentary lineup (a lineup that includes an outstanding examination of the notorious Duke-lacrosse case).
But nowadays, we don’t necessarily much care, or remember, that Simpson once was an star football player. A pitchman. A so-so movie actor. A celebrity.
Really the only reason we direct any attention to Simpson these days is that he once stood accused of committing two brutal murders and, through the skill of his lawyers and the bungling of the prosecution, was acquitted of the crimes at a sensational trial in Los Angeles in 1995. The verdicts brought Simpson no exoneration, however, and his life after 1995 went into a steady, prolonged tailspin.
That’s essentially why documentaries and docu-dramas are still made about Simpson and about the savage killings in Los Angeles of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman: Their deaths and his trial are lodestones for lingering fascination with Simpson, even though he was exposed long ago as an unsavory character, a brute who had beaten his wife in the years before her slaying. And in 2008, Simpson was convicted of robbery, kidnapping, conspiracy and other charges related to his armed attempt to retrieve sports memorabilia he claimed had been stolen from him.
He is serving a prison term of up to 33 years at Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada.
O.J.: Made in America is the latest and most ambitious treatment of Simpson’s life and times. It follows the widely watched miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson, the episodes of which aired over 10 weeks on FX in February-April. The miniseries revisited the 1995 trial and took no few liberties with the record in doing so.
“Can’t-miss TV” these shows are not.
Last night’s first installment of Made in America examined Simpson’s football fame and his subsequent advertising success — juxtaposing his careers with the racial turmoil that erupted in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the 1960s. Unlike Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and some other prominent black athletes of the time, Simpson avoided embracing racial causes. In that sense, he was something of a non-conformist — and he comes off badly in Made in America for having made such a choice.
Juxtaposing ’60s racial turmoil with Simpson’s colorblind pursuit of wealth and fame had the effect of blurring the documentary’s central point: Is it a study of race? Or of the perils of fame? Or is it about athletic privilege in America? The narrative focus isn’t particularly sharp or self-evident.
Looming as another shortcoming are the limits of generalizability. In other words, an extremely atypical case can’t really offer broad lessons or insights. Simpson, his fame, his outrages, his 1995 trial, are peculiar, and hold few widely applicable messages.
I raise a similar point in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, which includes a chapter about Simpson’s months-long trial — proceedings, I write, that spread across that watershed year like “an indelible stain.”
I note in 1995 that most murder cases do not go to trial; those that do almost never last for months. The “anomalous character of the Simpson trial,” I write, “made it a weak case from which to generalize about a topic as thorny, complex, and multidimensional as race relations in America.” Many commentators, then and now, have sought to make such a linkage.
But, I argue, a “single, uncharacteristic case that centered around a single, wealthy defendant who before his trial was little invested in issues and controversies of race simply could not have transmitted a widely applicable message about the state of race relations in America.”
What’s more, I write, “to argue that the Simpson case did offer a singularly revealing assessment about race in America in the mid-1990s is to ignore other dynamics of the time — in particular, the popular appeal of Colin Powell, the black former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and a hero of the 1990-91 Gulf War with Iraq. In 1995, Powell emerged as a strong prospective Republican candidate for president.”
Powell in the fall of 1995 was described as the “most popular American of any color.”
The boomlet fizzled with Powell’s announcement in November 1995 that he would not seek elected office. And it is little recalled these days that Powell’s sudden surge in his popularity coincided with the closing weeks of the Simpson trial.
Another gap in the first installment of Made in America was the superficial consideration of Simpson’s first wife, Marguerite, whom he married in 1967, when he was 19. She was 18. According to a New York Times report in 1994, “The marriage faltered early, with temporary separations starting in early 1970. Records do not indicate what the disputes were about. In 1973, Mrs. Simpson asked her lawyer to start divorce proceedings, which were soon called off.”
The Times report quoted one of Marguerite Simpson’s lawyers as saying said the marriage turned more troubled as Simpson’s celebrity status expanded. The difficulties in Simpson’s first, failed marriage were largely ignored in Made in America.
The first installment closed on a faintly ominous note, in taking up Simpson’s romantic interest in Nicole Brown, a waitress at a club he frequented. She was 18-years-old; he was still married to Marguerite.
Nicole returned from her first date with Simpson with her jeans torn. A friend noticed, and asked what had happened.
O.J., Nicole replied, had been “a little forceful.”
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