I’m often told by people who have read my fiction, that it made them “think.” I was hoping to make them “feel,” but it’s OK. I see how they get there. The fact is, when I write I do see it as a vehicle to comment on society. I think about what it all means constantly, and I guess that comes out in my writing.
Given all that, it’s probably not surprising that I am fascinated by stories that reveal something meaningful about society as a whole.
Like the story of OJ Simpson.
(I don’t think I need to say this, but OJ was a famous football player turned actor/mogul. In the 1990s, his ex wife, Nicole, and her friend turned up dead—brutally murdered—and OJ was the main suspect. The nation watched every second of the trial. He was acquitted.)
I watched “The People v. OJ Simpson,” a fictionalized mini-series about OJ (incredible!) and now I’m catching up on the ESPN documentary “Made in America,” also about OJ. OJ’s story can be interpreted as a commentary on everything from racial politics to domestic violence to sports. No matter how you consume his story, it definitely makes you think.
Courtesy of ESPN.go.com
The OJ Simpson story makes you think about:
We f-ing worship athletes. Schools worship football programs. That helped make OJ feel entitled. It also made him feel non-black, as he claimed sports was the one area where were people in the 1960s could be judged by their abilities rather than their color.
In a lot of ways, “Made in America” is a story about Los Angeles. OJ wasn’t just an athlete, he was a movie star. The police loved him and so did everyone else—so much so that they let him beat his wife. Meanwhile, people barely cared about poor Ron Goldman, killed the same night as Nicole Simpson, why? Because he wasn’t famous.
Glitz and glamour also made its way into the court room during OJ’s murder trial—while the prosecutor Marcia Clark acted like a lawyer, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran knew to put on a show for the cameras. Guess who won?
Of course, the outcome of OJ’s trial was also heavily influence by the racial tensions in Los Angeles. I knew about Rodney King, but I didn’t know about Latasha Harlins (a teenage girl shot in the head by a cashier on camera yet never received justice because the cashier did not get any jail time) and the Dalton Ave raid (where the police raided people’s homes searching for drugs, leaving the houses looking like they had been hit by a tornadoes). Together, these events brought LA to a boiling point.
USC football, the history of the LAPD, the great migration of southern blacks to LA and more—all this LA history comes out in the telling of OJ’s life.
Racial politics was huge during the trial, but they came into play way before then. At the height of his fame, OJ made it clear that he did not want to be viewed as black, but rather as an individual. Just OJ. He rose to fame in 1968, which happens to be the year Martin Luther King was killed and two black American medalists raised black-gloved fists on the podium during the Summer Olympics. Muhammad Ali and plenty of other athletes were using their platform to speak out against racial injustices. OJ wanted nothing to do with it. His goal was to assimilate into a white world, and arguably he did (for a while).
When most people think of OJ and racial politics, however, they think about the trial. The defense’s entire strategy was to use the tensions between blacks and the LAPD to make it plausible to the jury that the police set OJ up. It worked, because that was plausible.
Meanwhile, in the outside world, the country was severely divided. Most of black America wanted OJ to be not guilty. Most of white America wanted him to be found guilty. This divide had nothing to do with the merits of the case and everything to do with racial politics. Decade upon decade white people were able to attack, murder, and assault black life and get away with it (see section 2). A lot of black America saw a poetic justice in OJ’s acquittal.
The justice/legal system
It failed everyone. Nicole Simpson, Ron Goldman, Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, blacks in LA, everyone.
When I say the system failed Nicole Simpson, it really did. She called the police on OJ at least 8 times. Unfortunately, OJ’s stature was more important than the fact that he was beating his wife. Nicole literally said “he’s going to kill me.” Still, she had to die before the police would even put him in jail.
This is what I loved most about the fictionalized version of the trial—Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson. The People v. OJ did a good job depicting the sexism she endured. The judge, for example, would call her Marcia and Cochran “Mr. Cochran” or counselor. The media scrutinized her hair, her clothes, her commitment to her children and her relationships. Marcia Clark’s abilities, and by consequence the evidence against OJ, were severely devalued because of her sex.
Courtesy of fxnetworks.com
OJ’s father was gay. It was something he didn’t talk about, and was clearly ashamed of. He lashed out when he saw Nicole hanging out with gay people. How much did this unnecessary shame contribute to his anger?
I see so much captured by the telling of OJ’s story, and yet I still wonder about him as a person—as a character. The fact is that most of the images of OJ are rather nonthreatening and pleasant. He mastered that public persona. The only time we really experience the other side of him with our own eyes (or ears) is during the 911 calls Nicole makes to police. Even today as OJ talks from his jail cell, he comes across as calm, accommodating.
So, again, I wonder- what made him snap? Was it years of smiling in the face of white people in the midst of the civil rights movement? Was it pent up rage at his father? Jealousy? Getting old and losing relevance? Where did the murderous side of this ambitious, dying to please person come from?