30 for 30: O.J. Made In America
“If he snatches away, who can stop him? Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?”
My parents and I had just finished watching A Perfect World, a film about a convict on the run (Kevin Costner) who kidnaps a young Jehovah’s Witness boy and in the process of this encounter they become friends. The parting of the two (via law enforcement) seemed wicked, brutal and unnecessary. After the credits started to roll we stopped the video cassette and were suddenly bombarded by a labyrinth of freeways. A helicopter was following a white Bronco through the Los Angeles freeways and like everyone that night we were seduced by the absurdity of what was going on. The long freeway drive soon became monotonous, nothing significant was happening. The man of question was simply being followed by a motor cage. We went to bed.
The curiosity of course did not end that night as it doesn’t end to this day. The multitude of books, Hard Copy/Current Affair reports, Larry King interviews and most recently an FX miniseries created by Ryan Murphy, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, has created a post-O.J. acknowledgment—we are all in agreement that he did it so now we must try and understand how it happened and identify the cultural experience that brought us here. Murphy’s miniseries, which opens with footage from the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots, makes us understand the importance and power of retrospect—nothing comes from thin air, a series of events pollutes and contaminates.
Digging up old murder cases has now become a recent trend and with podcast and streaming technology to serve it up in bulk, culture finds it wild and thrilling to play detective. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series has managed to create a captivating look at the sports world where the lives of athletes are explored in a non-traditional way, not as heroic particularly, but as men and women who were daunted by talent, overwhelmed with responsibility and impaired by fame. 30 for 30 is poised to take on one of the sports world’s most notorious athletes, Orenthal James Simpson.
The five-part documentary series begins with Simpson in front of the Nevada Parole Board in 2013 when he is asked:
“Your age at first arrest was how old?”
“Mm 61 maybe, uhh 60 or 61?
“O.K., the PSI indicates that in 1994 you were arrested at the age of 46?”
Simpson looks confused, baffled and offended by this question.
“Where talking about this case?”
“No, the age at first arrest, even as a juvenile, how old were you the first time you were arrested for any reason?”
Simpson then takes a deep sighing breath.
“Uhm, I think about 46, yes.”
At the time of this parole hearing Simpson, a couple weeks after his 66th birthday, his once handsome face now fuller, under eye bags protruding, hair grey, resolve almost diminished, but capacity for charisma and aim to please remains strong. This is where we are, at the Lovelock Correctional Center, 439 miles North-Northwest of Las Vegas, and 319 miles East-Northeast of San Francisco. So how did we get here?
The documentary series takes us back to USC, which is a good place to start—a beautiful sprawling campus in East Los Angeles where its students stay safely nestled behind the campus gates in order to avoid the cities majorities (black and Hispanic residents) who reside just feet away in the Watts and Inglewood neighborhoods. Simpson is the star on campus, with big beaming brown eyes, dimples and a million dollar smile. He embodied all that was vanilla— married to the adorable Marguerite Whitley, with a growing family, and a Heisman trophy on the way—the optics were 20/20.
But we have to move away from Simpson in order to understand how Lovelock came to be. Like at his 1994 murder trial, Simpson is never interviewed in the film, stock footage is used effectively to unravel the persona of Simpson—getting to a true, evocative Simpson through a recent interview would be a waste of time. Ezra Edelman, the film’s producer and director, is using a sociological lens to trace the football stars fall from grace and how culture and race played a remarkable role in his story.
The idea of moving to Los Angles from the South seemed like a promise to the black community (you can make a good wage and under the beaming sunlight everyone is the same color), but the pulse that beats through Los Angeles lacks an integrity that continues to this day. The city’s culture is an illusion wrapped in a promise that eventually turns into a lie. As Stacey Peralta’s documentary, Crips and Bloods: Made in America pointed out and Edelman expands upon, Los Angeles struggles with serving and protecting its diverse residence and as a result its citizens found alternative ways to seek justice.
Like Murphy’s FX series, the Rodney King beating and Los Angeles riots, are poised as the centerpiece for Made in America and the condition we are in. This condition is strangely best summed up by former homicide detective Mark Fuhrman, who is featured in the film, as he comments on the Rodney King beating: “this is what happens when you take away a tool that would have ended this in 10 second seconds – choke hold.” insinuating that due to not being able utilize the chokehold method, the officers had no choice but to resort to beating King incessantly. The practice of chokeholds was banned in 1992 by the L.A.P.D due to several deaths that were attributed to its practice.
Fuhrman’s comments showcase a divisiveness in police and societal culture (although it should go without saying that Fuhrman does not represent the entire police community), his comments do articulate a cultural disconnect between the police and the communities they serve. With rape, gun violence, murder, and ‘alpha, charlie’ as a part of one’s daily repertoire, a netherworld of action and communication is created, like a box trying to fit into a circle, common ground and understanding are evaporated on both ends of the spectrum. Edelman’s film sends a strong message by not sending a message at all. By allowing the stock footage and his interview subjects to speak for themselves—the voices from every spectrum (from black activities, lawyers, friends, agents, the press—including transgender news reporter Hanna Zoey Tur—to the L.A.P.D) communicate about their experience, even Fuhrman, who when confronted with the racist comments he stated to a screenwriter (the statements that were caught on tape and changed the whole dynamic of the case): “Yeah, it was pretty bad. And there’s nothing you can take back, like an ‘Oh gee gosh, sorry,”’ in his own way Fuhrman is given the opportunity to formulate an apology, as meager as it may be, it’s on his terms. Edelman has created an interview process where everyone speaks freely, to the point of possible character assassination which is refreshing and needed in order to understand the racial dynamics of this case.
As we go on this journey with its cast of characters—the documentary features Marcia Clark, F. Lee Bailey (yep he’s still alive) Barry Scheck, Mark Fuhrman, Ron Shipp, two jurors and Nicole’s younger sister Tanya Brown—we are left with a different type of residue than in 1994. One of the juror’s admits she came to a verdict of ‘not guilty’ due to payback for the Rodney King verdict. As Carrie Bess, juror #98 and co-author of Madam Foreman: A Rush to Judgment?, stated while she was being interviewed “probably 90 percent” of the jurors made their decision based upon payback for the Rodney King beating. In another scene Bess goes further with her assertion:
“Let me tell you, I lose respect for any woman that take an ass whooping when she don’t have to. Don’t stay in the water if it’s over your head — you’ll drown.”
Another juror, Yolanda Crawford, indicates that because the prosecution didn’t do their job, the jury’s verdict was on target:
“I think that the jury was made to be the scapegoat for their faults. It was a mistake to present Fuhrman the way they did. It was a mistake to let Darden get up there and be a part of that case. Had they come correct, had they had the right attorney’s up there, putting on the case that they needed to put on, they would’ve won. It wasn’t payback. They messed up.”
Made in America’s strength is its candid interviews and Edelman and company’s ability to create an atmosphere of trust. With the frank and outspoken discussion that occurs between the filmmakers and their interview subjects, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is freeing but also leaves a residue of disgust. Like when Simpson puts on an African headpiece at black church after his acquittal, “it doesn’t fit,” the lie is so in your face you want to vomit. When an avoidance of the truth does occur, it disparages the whole concept of what Edelman is trying to capture. This most notably occurs when Barry Scheck (the DNA expert for the defense in Simpson’s Murder trial), who when questioned if he actually thought the evidence was planted, squirms, and evades the question. 20 years later he won’t say it, but Barry, the gig is up!
Never before seen crime photos are shown, Simpson’s old friends speak to his ostentatious behavior, tapes describing abuse are heard, but the most disturbing aspect of the film isn’t necessarily the two homicides or the acquittal of a “guilty” man, but the brutality of throwing it all away to own something, to play God when that something and somebody (the mother of your children) doesn’t want to be with you anymore. With Simpson dancing across the football field at USC and on the snowy grass of Buffalo stadium, the questions run through: how could a man with such gift believe that the gift alone could redeem him? From murder? And the why, where does the fire come from? Nicole had surmised to Shipp, a former L.A.P.D officer, that she though Simpson may have beat her because his father was gay.
Without the football field the fire gets misplaced multiple times: by the jury, by the cops, by culture and by the man himself. When Michael McClinton, who was involved in the armed robbery, (and supplied the gun) that Simpson is now serving time for in Lovelock, agreed to testify against him at trial, he wrestles with the idea of being perceived as a rat. But then it occurred to him, FUCK O.J.!” The fraud is loose and the documentary ends with a concept, “what did O.J. ever do for us?” Like every journey, culture comes full circle and the black community realizes they were defending a white man all along, or possibly worse, a black man who wanted to be white and when rejected pretended to be black– an illusion wrapped in a promise that eventually turns into a lie.
O.J. Made in America can be streamed online