"O.J.: Made in America:" A Personal Cultural Criticism

May 13, 2017

“I’m not black, I’m O.J.”

O.J.: Made in America is a five part mini-series chronicling the rise and fall of perhaps the most iconic celebrity in American popular culture. While he endured racial hardship growing up in 1950s San Francisco, his football stardom and contagious smile boosted him to unprecedented heights as the most recognizable face in America. His appearance resembled a black athlete rising above the confines of institutionalized racism and poverty, but he was so much more.

Racial subjects have always been interesting for me. I think this is because I am far enough removed in age from the intense racial strife of the past centuries, not to say that racism is dead. The history of racism is intriguing to me because of how unnecessary it is, yet how much of human nature it explicates. Retrospection is unique because in my eyes, because I can look back and see a huge majority of the white population and the U.S. government as racist, while back then, racism was commonplace. What’s even more fascinating is to observe how different black people have risen above the racist American society and justice system, as athletes, doctors, lawyers or other occupations. For me, the prime example of this is O.J. Simpson. However, it wasn’t through his job that he transcended race; it was his personality.

Part 1
The ESPN series initially focuses on O.J. becoming one of the greatest college football players of all time at USC, then his successful ten year NFL career, then follows him back to L.A. as an actor. While at USC, O.J. displayed the perfect character, becoming a role model for young people everywhere (including me, had I been alive). His humility and exemplary relationship with his wife and highschool sweetheart Marguerite made everyone fall in love with him. He described his attitude: “I don’t see race. I’m not bothered by being the only black in the room, when I walk in, I don’t count the blacks or whites in the room.” This mindset allowed him to connect with people of all races, accentuating his celebrity status when he returned to L.A. to clink glasses with the elite. He had the perfect life. But eventually, the fame and money went to his head, starting with an affair with an eighteen-year-old white woman named Nicole Brown.

Part 2
He started dating Nicole while still married to Marguerite, albeit a deteriorating marriage. What I found bizarre about O.J.’s rise to fame was that in all his success and resources, he never gave back to the black community. While other black athlete-celebrities like Lew Alcindor and Muhammad Ali became champions for civil rights, O.J. distanced himself from his roots. I don’t think he would’ve been wholeheartedly accepted by white America had he talked more about his black identity, but even still, he could’ve greatly impacted his beloved L.A. (especially the inner city) or hometown San Francisco with just a small fraction of his time and resources. Less could have been more. But instead, he essentially “traded in” his black wife for a younger white woman, conveniently enjoying all the spoils white Hollywood has to offer.

Coming from a Catholic family, there was a deep-rooted belief in my house that marriages are for life; Mom and Dad were my heroes. I now understand that not everyone shares my beliefs, and some marriages aren’t rooted in true love or just don’t work out after a while. Marguerite was a private person, but O.J. continued to want more and more of the public eye; this was the main reason for their divorce in 1979. But at least he had a happier and healthier marriage now, right?

Wrong. Instead of settling down like most people do when they get married, O.J. continued to crave more of the spotlight. More movies, more red carpets, more girls; less Nicole. Then nagging becomes irritation, irritation gives birth to arguments, arguments turn physical, the last one going too far; with their two beautiful mixed children asleep upstairs. What if the kids walked out to their driveway and found their mom like that?

Part 3
From the very beginning, everything was set up for him to fail. Everyone knew he was guilty. His DNA: found in his Bronco, at his house, and Nicole’s house (the crime scene). Then he ran. What was he running from?

Looking back, he really had no reason to run. Between the admiration of the nation, a downtown jury, and the greatest black defense lawyer in his back pocket, there was no way he could lose. The case soon was no longer about facts, only about convincing the jury. This was also a time in which DNA was much less recognized than it is today, so an empirical argument was doomed once the subject of race was injected into the courtroom.

The prosecution took a beating in Part 4, almost as deadly as Nicole’s. Shockingly, all the evidence from O.J.’s past abuses of Nicole didn’t sway the jury one bit. Some jurors concluded that domestic abuse didn’t necessarily lead to murder, and juror Carrie Bess stated: “I lose respect for any woman who’d take an ass whooping when she don’t have to.”

Then there were those gloves. There were many excuses from the prosecution as to why the gloves didn’t fit, including: the stale blood and overall damage of the glove has caused it to shrivel; as an actor, O.J. visibly struggled to put on the gloves; his agent, Mike Gilbert, even advised him to stop taking his arthritis meds.
“If it does not fit, you must acquit.”

Part 5 chronicles the polarizing verdict, the various confessions to close friends, and O.J. riding the wave of his fame that eventually crashed onto the shores of reality. His licentious downfall stemmed from a desperate return to the spotlight, capitalized by losing the civil case, his estate, but most saddening of all, his family. After terminating custody of the two children he had with Nicole, O.J. just couldn’t stay out of trouble.

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

O.J. is perhaps my brightest reminder that there is such a thing as too much fun. There was also too much evidence; there was no talking his way out of this one. I noticed how much of a shell of his former self he had become, with waves of grey washing through his hairline.

After watching O.J.:Made in America, it was clear to me that the U.S. justice system wasn’t necessarily about bringing the truth to light as it was making either argument look like the truth. This has been seen through the numerous police brutality cases, specifically the Rodney King case which was in the back of every juror’s mind during the O.J. trial. What disappoints me is that the case became about race, not domestic violence. There was a clear pattern of violence, and instead of remaining objective and impartial, the jury threw their arms around the hero they wanted to see, blaming the victims. While the whole of black America may have felt a sweet revenge for Rodney King and all the past decades of police abuse, the Brown and Goldman families were left the most battered by the situation.

“We were drinking one night, and I asked him: what really happened that night?”

“If she hadn’t answered the door with a knife in her hand, she’d still be alive.”

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