1995: The year the future began
For a five-part documentary that lasted nearly 8 hours, ESPN’s much-hyped treatment of O.J. Simpson was often short on nuance and explanatory detail. The film in the end was far less extraordinary than the cascade of advance rave reviews had promised.
The life and misdeeds of O.J. Simpson — a onetime football star, rental-car pitchman, so-so movie actor, and convicted wife-beater who is in prison in Nevada for armed robbery, kidnapping, and other thuggish crimes committed in 2007 — hardly merited the extensive treatment they received in O.J.: Made in America.
Despite its length, Made in America never adequately explained why contemporary audiences should care about Simpson, 37 years after he retired from pro football and 21 years after he was tried in Los Angeles for the savage slayings of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald L. Goldman.
The proceedings in 1995 were extravagantly called the “Trial of the Century,” and ended with Simpson’s beating the rap. When the verdicts were about to be read on live television on October 3, 1995, the country essentially shut down in anticipation, in what was a remarkable, impromptu national vigil.
Reactions to the verdicts were sharply divided: Many African Americans cheered Simpson’s acquittal, welcoming the outcome as a rebuke to the Los Angeles police department and its harsh tactics toward blacks; many white Americans were aghast, reacting in slack-jawed disbelief.
The final installment of Made in America, shown last night, included striking footage of those reactions. But the responses were not as unanimously race-based as the film implied.
Not all blacks cheered Simpson’s acquittal; not all whites were shocked by the verdicts. As I write in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began:
“The images of joyous blacks and dumbfounded whites in some ways masked a more subtle reality: the reactions suggested … that racial solidarity was more pronounced than it was.”
Such nuance was absent from Made in America.
The film had other drawbacks. It made quite clear that Simpson was a serial wife-beater but offered scant serious consideration about what may have produced the vicious side of his character. The film included very little about Simpson’s mother and first wife, a shortcoming that Allen Barra noted in an insightful and critical review of a film that he said “feels just a little too good about itself.”
Made in America sought to project the Simpson case as a metaphor about troubled race relations in Los Angeles and beyond. But that interpretation was unpersuasive, given that Simpson kept a decided distance from issues of race and civil rights, at least until he went on trial in 1995.
The trial judge, Lance Ito, was something of a publicity hound who delighted in the company of celebrities. He was roundly criticized by prosecutors for having lost control of the courtroom during Simpson’s trial. But little of Ito’s bumbling was considered in Made in America.
Save for Robert Shapiro’s flagrant hypocrisy (at the end of the trial, he publicly repudiated the incendiary, race-based defense strategy that he had devised), the flaws of Simpson’s “Dream Team” of legal talent went mostly unmentioned. The film presented Johnnie L. Cochran, Simpson’s lead lawyer, as almost heroic; there were no references to allegations of his spousal abuse, which he denied and which emerged during the Simpson case.
F. Lee Bailey, another defense lawyer, was cast as shrewd and devastating in cross-examination. Ignored was Bailey’s subsequent disbarment in Florida and Massachusetts, in a case unrelated to Simpson’s.
Carl E. Douglas, another member of Simpson’s legal “Dream Team,” popped up often in the film, once to describe the redecoration of Simpson’s mansion before the predominantly black jury visited early in the trial.
Photographs of Simpson posing with white people were replaced with images of Simpson with African Americans. A civil rights-themed lithograph was moved from Cochran’s law office to a prominent place in Simpson’s mansion, where jurors would be sure to see it.
Douglas defended such moves and, astonishingly, invoked an ethnic stereotype in making his point.
“If we had had a Latin jury,” he said, “we would have had a picture of him in a sombrero. There would have been a mariachi band out front. We would have had a piñata at the upper staircase.”
That director Ezra Edelman included such insensitive comments was surprising; they represented one of several places where the documentary that could have been trimmed.
Save for its detailed consideration of the history of troubled race relations in Los Angeles, Made in America did little to explore the context in which Simpson’s criminal trial unfolded in 1995: There were few hints of the broad transitions then underway in American life.
The year was a watershed in many respects, a time when the Internet and early Web were entering mainstream consciousness. Not everyone was online in 1995, but almost everyone had at least heard about the Internet. Indeed, the Simpson verdicts were one of the last major stories in which the Internet did not figure as a prominent news platform.
Simpson’s trial left little lasting consequence in American jurisprudence, which also went unmentioned in Made in America. As I note in 1995, “the trial’s most significant contributions were to forensic DNA analysis, to introduce the promise and benefits of genetic evidence to mainstream American culture.”
The Simpson case was the first major criminal trial in America in which DNA evidence figured prominently. The proceedings were televised, allowing audiences to gain a measure of familiarity with forensic DNA testing — a familiarity that was to deepen in the years after 1995.
“The trial,” I write, “marked a delineation in the recognition of forensic DNA testing as decisive in criminal [proceedings], and Simpson’s acquittal encouraged a push for improved procedures in collecting, storing, processing, and analyzing DNA evidence.”
Police mishandling of DNA evidence had helped make Simpson’s acquittal inevitable.
More from The 1995 Blog: