Over the summer, I watched the (now Oscar-winning) ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America.” Over break, I watched FX’s American Crime Story series “The People vs. O.J. Simpson, a true-crime television show providing an only slightly fictionalized recap of the same events covered in the documentary. For those of you who don’t know, the aforementioned “events” are the June 1994 murder of Nicole Brown (Simpson’s ex-wife) and her friend Ronald Goldman, followed by a media circus arrest and trial of Simpson., and his eventual acquittal. Today, it is more widely (though still not unanimously) accepted that Simpson was, in fact, guilty, and that a combination of then-current race relations between the Los Angeles Police Department and the black population of Los Angeles along with trial-by-media were responsible for letting him walk free.
These two accounts came at the same story in two very different ways. The ESPN documentary began in Simpson’s childhood and went through modern day, detailing how his race (Simpson is black) has influenced his life, and how fame changed him. The Rodney King riots against racially-based police brutality were covered, and cited as a major impetus to the racial divisions which, many allege, eventually set Simpson free. In an interview with a juror, ESPN asked, “Do you think O.J. was guilty?”to which the juror responded that she didn’t care; her “Not Guilty” vote was for Rodney King.
The American Crime Story begins on the night of the murder, and brings the viewer only right past the verdict. Even without the historical background provided by ESPN, though, race is a huge – if not the biggest – player in the trial. In jury voting, the only “Guilty” votes come from the two white women on the jury. Protests outside of the courtroom and verdict reaction shots, both reenactments and actual footage from 1995, show a clear divide: whites think he is guilty, blacks think this is just another case of the LAPD targeting a black man. This is a vast overgeneralization, of course – one of Simpson’s prosecutors was black – but it is a divide unlike something we have seen since.
An interesting aspect of the case which was covered by both re-tellings was the sentiment that O.J. Simpson’s celebrity status transcended race. The documentary describes how he surrounded himself with almost exclusively upper-crust white friends at the height of his fame, and was often referred to as the “Mayor of Brentwood,” the majority white L.A. neighborhood in which he resided. He did not do any outreach work in any impoverished black areas; in fact, he tried to distance himself from his “slum” childhood in San Francisco. The American Crime Story series puts it more bluntly: when his lawyers bring up “playing the race card,” i.e. using a conspiracy of LAPD racism as a defense argument, Simpson’s character proclaims, “I’m not black! I’m O.J.!” (This is allegedly a real quote). The questions raised by these pieces on the intersection between race and celebrity are ones I had never thought about before, and ones that are still extremely relevant today.
Many say that the “trial of the century” was also the mess-up of the century; at the beginning, the prosecution had so much physical evidence that they thought it would be an open-and-shut case. There are claims that this was a perfect storm of societal influences, and that something like it would never happen again. Though it was over 20 years ago, though, some aspects of the environment leading up to the trial feel eerily similar to today, especially the reactions to police brutality and racism. Reading an interview with the cast members dated in 2017, each was asked if they thought Simpson was guilty. All of the white cast members gave an unshakable “yes,” whereas the black castmembers erred on the side of “we may never know.” Even two decades later, the racial divide on opinion of this one case stands to some extent; I think that this is because we are still facing so many of the same problems as a country.