First, understand that OJ Simpson, to me, is the murderer. I was a kid when he killed his ex-wife and her friend, so I hadn’t known him as a football player or movie star or celebrity before then. The first I ever knew of him was when his white Bronco interrupted my Saved By The Bell marathoning.
This documentary doesn’t just seek to illustrate the life and times of one Orenthal James Simpson; rather it places his career and his crime within the context of L.A.’s race wars in the 1980s and 1990s. While the things you thought you knew about his sensational murder trial aren’t wrong, they’re explored with new understanding, through a lens of his being a black man, sort of, but not really.
What on earth do I mean by that? OJ grew up in the projects, as he is fond of saying when it’s convenient. He dreamed not of glory or achievement or wealth, but of fame, of being known. Certainly his football career granted him that. He was a big deal in college football circa 1968, kept his nose clean, stayed out of politics, and earned himself the Heisman trophy. He was drafted to the NFL where he suffered a bit of a slump but had a rebirth by 1973 when he set a record rushing for 2000 yards in one season. I walk my dog further than that nearly every day, but apparently that’s some sort of accomplishment in football.
OJ became a star athlete and celebrity whose fame transcended his race. White American embraced him, and OJ played his part. He courted white culture and did his best to never remind anyone that he was still technically a black man. He was the first national black spokesperson, for Hertz rental cars, and that meant he’d arrived. When he retired from football, he traded in his black wife for a white one and transitioned to Hollywood.
Yeah sure he beat his wife on the reg, but with a wink and an autograph the cops would be slapping him on the back, making no reports, casting no aspersions. Life was good until Nicole up and left him and his jealousy surged. The one night Nicole was found dead, nearly decapitated in fact, in a small ocean’s worth of her blood. A friend who had had the misfortune of stopping by at the wrong time, Ronald Goldman, was also killed. And this time the cops couldn’t deny that the crime had OJ’s name all over it.
We all know that OJ was acquitted, but this documentary shows his acquittal as an act of vengeance. The jury was stacked largely with poor black people who had seen members of the LAPD be acquitted in he Rodney King beating. Here was a chance to right that wrong and make the system work for a black man for once. Everyone conveniently forgot that OJ had spent his entire adult life distancing himself from the black community and they made him a civil rights hero. His lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, played the race card and he played it hard “dealt it from the bottom of the deck” it’s said. And he got off. But instead of relishing his incredible good luck, OJ’s life continued to derail until he found himself in court once again, this time found guilty and sentenced to some 33 years in prison, whether or not his crimes truly warranted it. This, again, was retaliation rather than justice.
At 467 minutes, this documentary achieves a depth we haven’t seen before and earns itself an Academy Award nomination – but is this fair? It had a qualifying run in theatres (though who would pay to sit for nearly 8 hours is a mystery to me) but it was produced and aired on television, in 5 parts on ESPN. Every other documentary had to play by different rules, hovering around that 90 minute mark that makes a film viable and marketable. This is the longest film to ever receive a best documentary nomination, and I can’t help but wonder if this will change things moving forward.
I can’t ignore that this film is very effective, juxtaposing the American dream with American reality, pinning OJ’s circumstances in a time and place that were far from ideal. It is balanced and cheese almighty is it ever thorough, complete with Marcia Clark in a redemptive hairdo. Glory be! It doesn’t waste any of its 467 minutes, nor are any redundant. There is much ground to cover and the film makes clear that OJ is not just a man of his own making, but an idol that a whole culture had a hand in creating (and destroying). There are so many insights here that I sent constant missives to Sean, just venting my hurt and frustration. I’ve come away with a breadth of understanding that his filled a gulch I didn’t even know existed in my awareness of this epic and polarizing event. There are discoveries to be made here, if you’re willing to follow director Ezra Edelman’s trail of breadcrumbs for the requisite 7 hours and change.