Because O.J. Simpson Actually Did More Than Kill Two People
So this is totally late because I watched this ESPN 30 for 30 documentary when it aired last month but . . . reasons.
I enjoy a good documentary (see HBO’s phenomenal Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills in which the filmmakers tear the State of Arkansas’ case against the West Memphis Three to shreds) but had no idea that ESPN had this 30 for 30 program, much less decent documentaries. I have watched and read about the O.J. Simpson murder case since June 13, 1994. I was a paralegal student at the time and the murders, which were plastered all over tvs and newspapers even before the infamous Bronco “chase,” made for good study material during classes.
I didn’t know anything about O.J. Simpson before June 12, 1994 other than he was in the Naked Gun movies and he had something to do with sports. Sorry, not a football fan. Even after reading just about every book on this case (don’t judge), there was still a hazy idea of what Simpson was like before that summer of 1994.
Ezra Edelman opens the documentary with a shocking and unintentionally ironic scene of Simpson – – aged, bloated and incarcerated as a current guest of the state of Nevada – – before what I presume is a parole board. He is speaking of how the football team he coaches has bested everyone else and you can see pride and arrogance in his speech. That the football team he coaches is a prison team seems to matter little to him; he might as well be speaking of coaching the current Superbowl champions (no idea who, sorry, not a fan.) His facade is broken when a parole board member makes a simple statement. “I see here that in 1994 you were arrested at the age of 46.” His expression says exactly what was going through my mind at the time – – Is she fucking serious?
With that start, Edelman shows us in one sentence the turning point from O.J. Simpson, megastar, athlete, celebrity, spokesman to O.J. Simpson, inmate number 1027820.
Edelman has done a fantastic job of not only showing what O.J. Simpson’s early life was like – – childhood, college years at USC, professional NFL years – – but also showing what Los Angeles was like in the 1960s. That’s something I wasn’t expecting. The dichotomy between Simpson’s pampered and privileged life as a Heisman trophy winning Trojan and the lives of average African-Americans living in L.A. was shocking. The racial divide was painful and blatant but he managed to avoid it, becoming almost colorless, thanks to his insane talent on the football field. It didn’t stop there – – Simpson’s good fortune continued throughout his pro ball career and into his transition to the predominantly white entertainment industry. It’s crazy to hear that only forty years ago, a black spokesperson would have indicated to the rest of the world that the product he or she was hawking was aimed at the black population, thus becoming a “black product.” Simpson managed to eradicate that with one jump via his Hertz commercials. When he said “I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” he wasn’t kidding. The raging difference between how Rodney King was beaten when he was pulled over and how Simpson was given hardcore kid glove treatment for two counts of first degree murder makes the LAPD look less like an organization desperate to frame a minority for murder and more like a fanwanking Keystone Kops outfit.
I hate to admit that I was fascinated and impressed watching the sports footage. How did he run so fast and even side to side? How could he? Even worse, Simpson had charisma. It’s no wonder he became O.J. Simpson, Superstar – – he was talented, he was charismatic, he was handsome and he was wealthy. Seeing this O.J., it became clear to me how he had so many friends and acquaintances and how he attracted Nicole Brown.
This documentary also gives Nicole a voice, perhaps for the first time. While she was the main player, if you will, between herself and Ron Goldman (who was mostly ignored by the media and lost in the shuffle of the circus) she was generally presented (inaccurately) as “O.J. Simpson’s wife;” a mindless party girl who viciously stole Simpson away from his first wife; just a victim. She was a cardboard cutout with no real flesh and blood. Mr. Edelman gives her substance; of course there is the replay of the 911 calls but he also shows pages of her journal, in which she clearly writes of Simpson beating her and her fears. Seeing her will written in her handwriting only months before she bled out on her front steps is chilling and heart wrenching.
The criminal trial is of course represented during the documentary but it’s but a piece of the puzzle that is the life of O.J. Simpson. Edelman doesn’t suffocate us with multiple clips and replays of the trial; he does show some portions that were not on heavy rotation in 1994/1995 and since and that is appreciated. He interviews many key players, from Ron Shipp to Tom Lange to Marcia Clark to Carl Douglas to F. Lee Bailey to Bill Hodgman to (yes) Mark Fuhrman. He also includes several of Simpson’s childhood friends and two of the criminal trial jurors. All of them provide an independent voice as to what they experienced and saw in relation to their interactions with Simpson. (The Goldman family was not included as they understandably did not wish to participate.) Perhaps most stunning is the revelation that the jury essentially decided to acquit Simpson as payback for the verdicts in the Rodney King trial. While not wholly surprising given the atmosphere in L.A. in 1994, something I very much remember, it is frustrating and sad, especially given Simpson’s crude remark upon leaving his Rockingham home for jail (“What are all these n*****s doing in Brentwood?”) The very people who gathered around his home to support him, the people who believed they were righting a wrong done to another person of color by acquitting Simpson, this is what he thought of them? His statement of “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” takes a whole new meaning.
This is a lengthy documentary, five episodes that clock in at nearly eight hours total. It sounds bloated and ridiculous on paper – – I was going to pass on it based on the time commitment alone – – but those hours fly by. Some of the images shown are not for the weak stomached. The gaping stab wounds left in the necks of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman are horrifying. But as Mr. Edelman says “you can’t turn away.” Regardless of whether you felt O.J. Simpson was innocent or guilty of homicide, this documentary may not dispel your beliefs. I was left with a monumental feeling of sadness. Sadness for Nicole, who loved this man, and Ron, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadness for Nicole’s children, who were left without their mother and then without a father. Sadness for the many people who paid a price for being involved or brought into this case. Sadness that our country seems to have not progressed much in the 22 years since the murders. And even sadness for the immense talent that Simpson had that he squandered away from a possessive, violent streak and a glaring sense of entitlement.
I think the most important message that might be picked up from this for women is Nicole’s sad, sad life with Simpson. He was and remains a classic example of how a batterer can be anyone. Abuse knows no race, no religion, no cultural boundaries and no income. It’s painful that she endured years of abuse, before they married and even after they divorced. Only days before the man she loved would nearly decapitate her she was calling a battered women’s shelter in Santa Monica, reaching out for help and support. Why did this woman, who seemed to have many friends and family only a couple of hours away, feel that she couldn’t reach out to one of them? Run to one of them to escape from her abuser? It’s a question that will never, can never be answered because she is not here to tell us. If one other woman, just one, elects to act differently, maybe she did not die in vain.
I would not hesitate to recommend this documentary to a sports fan, to a true crime fan or to anyone who enjoys a film that is put together with thought and heart.