O.J. Simpson Saga a Distinctly American Tale of Race, Privilege

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O.J. Simpson watches during testimony in a 2013 court hearing regarding his conviction on armed robbery and kidnapping charges. Reuters

For 150 years, most fiction writers in the U.S. have pursued their own version of the Great American Novel. When done correctly, it's a work that captures the nation in all of its complex beauty, with nuanced and flawed characters who explore their world and its most poignant issues, often merging crime and justice, sports, celebrity, class and race in a riveting drama with life-or-death repercussions.

In real life, few things come closer to this lofty ideal than the O.J. Simpson saga.

Simpson's chase, arrest and trial oscillated between tawdry tabloid affair and enlightening narrative. Even today, this twisted, surreal story has all the right salacious ingredients—especially for a nation that has found Serial, The Jinx and Making a Murderer irresistible. But in a time when television has become the ultimate storyteller’s medium, perhaps the Great American Novel is a bygone notion. But in its place, we have two Great American TV events, both on Simpson, in the same year. What is it about this case that, even two decades later, still rivets American audiences?

“The issues are constantly relevant,” says Brad Simpson, one executive producer of the scripted FX series The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which premiered in February of this year and was based on Jeffrey Toobin's 1997 book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. The show set the internet ablaze with its highly stylized, slightly melodramatic and superstar-packed 10-episode run. “African-Americans are constantly aware of the inconsistencies of justice and of racial divides," says Brad Simpson. "But for whites, even liberals, this is like ripping off the bandage—you have to see the wound you've been ignoring. I do feel we provoked a debate.”

A new show, ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America, a seven-and-a-half-hour documentary miniseries under the 30 for 30 banner that debuts Saturday (though it had a brief theatrical premiere earlier this year), will attempt to provoke a similar debate.

'Story of Race'

Given the case’s prominence, these projects seemed “inevitable,” says Toobin, who, in addition to writing the book on which the FX series was based, was also interviewed for the ESPN documentary. “The O.J. case is a chapter in the story of race in America, which is the definitive subject in American history.”

The FX series tackled race while dismantling both the judicial process and the egos and foibles of the legal teams, with a dynamic cast that featured John Travolta, Nathan Lane, Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Brad Simpson and fellow executive producer Nina Jacobson credit FX President John Landgraf with pushing them to keep race front and center. “We sharpened the focus,” Jacobson says, adding that the Black Lives Matter movement had “an enormous impact” on how they approached the project. They also tackled other issues such as the pervasive sexism faced by prosecutor Marcia Clark.

Connor Schell, executive producer for ESPN Films and Original Content, believes the FX series helped generate interest in documentary director Ezra Edelman’s 30 for 30 film. “We should benefit greatly from the quality and success of that project,” Schell says.

Edelman, a Peabody Award winner for Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, decided the format would allow him to offer a comprehensive study of O.J. Simpson as well as issues of race, the police and celebrity. Edelman includes 66 interviews with Simpson's childhood friends, football teammates, Clark and two jurors. Edelman, who needed two 14-foot-long canvas boards to keep track of all his interviewees, praises Schell for letting him expand the run time as he saw fit. “I was glad because I couldn’t figure out where to cut.”

Edelman kicks off with the glory of Simpson’s University of Southern California football exploits and juxtaposes them with the civil rights movement.

“If you are under 30, you don't know how impactful Simpson was, so it was important to show how beautiful he was to watch and how seductive he was. Otherwise he's reduced very quickly to a simplistic or symbolic character,” says Edelman, who is old enough to remember running through airports as a child in imitation of Simpson's famous Hertz commercials.

But Edelman pulls the camera back further to fill in Simpson's childhood in a tough neighborhood with an absent gay father, his years in the NFL and his nimble cutback to Madison Avenue and Hollywood—and how he distanced himself from anything overtly racial along the way.

Edelman's interviews reveal how the Hertz commercials had to be crafted to make white audiences comfortable with a black spokesman and the major role race played in Simpson’s movie career despite the star’s outlook that “I’m not black; I’m O.J.” He lets viewers ponder whether Simpson became “a pawn” in white society or if he was “so self-possessed” that he realized to attain his goals he would put his race behind him, even in an era when others—Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell—were speaking out and often paying a price.

Edelman says the “trickiest” episode is the second, though it's also his favorite. He devotes much of it to the decades of depraved indifference the Los Angeles Police Department showed the black community. Edelman interviews former police officers who deny the existence of racism, then counters them with harsh evidence of it: Police Chief Daryl Gates calls Latino officers “lazy” and says black people suffered chokehold injuries because they did not respond to police confrontation the same as “normal people” (a comment that prompted white officers to call their cars “black and normals”).

The documentary revisits the story of Eula Love being shot on her front lawn in 1979 and Operation Hammer, a 1988 sweep that one former LAPD officer now admits “debased” the community. “I wanted to show that these issues didn’t start with Rodney King,” Edelman says. “These were very clear flashpoints I found during my research.”

There’s a stunning moment when Edelman plays the King beating and a dispassionate voiceover justifies it by saying it would never have happened if the chokehold were still allowed in arrests. Edelman then cuts to his interview subject: Mark Fuhrman, one of the detectives who investigated the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

06_09_oj_01 O.J. Simpson holds his hands up to the jury during his murder trial in 1995. Reuters

Abuse and Violence

Despite the focus on racial injustice, Edelman makes clear that he's not letting Simpson's supporters off the hook. The documentary closes in on Simpson’s record of domestic violence, playing 911 calls and showing Nicole Brown’s battered face and diary entries that detailed repeated abuse. Interviews and footage reveal how the police often let Simpson avoid arrest, how his one abuse arrest yielded only probation (he organized a golf tournament for community service) and how the media (including groveling ESPN host Roy Firestone) were willing accomplices as Simpson whitewashed his image.

“The story of the abuse is as important as the conversation about race,” Edelman says. “It’s about the power of fame and celebrity, and about masculinity and the need for control and the use of violence.”

When viewers reach Simpson’s trial, they have as much an understanding of why Cochran’s defense was so effective as they do of Simpson as an entitled celebrity—one who cheated at golf, brazenly slept around and beat up his wife, but who also managed to get away with everything.

Edelman matches the trial's memorable moments with riveting interviews. Before parading the jury through Simpson’s house, Cochran infamously replaced photos of Simpson's white friends with photos of black ones, and even with Cochran’s copy of Norman Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges painting. It was a moment that illuminated just how vulnerable the American justice system is to manipulation and undercuts support for Cochran’s case. Yet Carl Douglas, who worked with Cochran, remains unrepentant: “If we’d had a Latino jury, we would have had a picture of him in a sombrero. They would have had a mariachi band out front.”

Then Mike Gilbert, Simpson's agent, who believes that his client was guilty, admits that he told Simpson to stop taking his arthritis medicine—a trick that made his knuckles swell enough so that a certain infamous pair of gloves didn’t quite fit.

Edelman doesn’t shy away from the gruesome photos of Brown and Goldman murdered, surrounded by buckets of blood, indicating a kind of rage that's nearly impossible to fathom.

“With all the media circus, I needed to say, ‘No, this is what we’re talking about,’ so people who wanted him to be acquitted have to grapple with it,” Edelman says.

His retelling, however, goes beyond the verdict that let Simpson walk free. Edelman follows Ron Goldman’s father, Fred, through a civil suit victory and shows Simpson in Florida as he spirals into a world of drugs, thugs and strip clubs.

Edelman wants viewers to see the link between the events he lays out—how Simpson's acquittal in the criminal case led to Goldman's civil suit, which led to Simpson hiding his memorabilia to keep it from being sold off to pay Goldman. And then, of course, the documentary leads viewers through Simpson's final, ironic fall, after some of that memorabilia is stolen, Simpson makes his ill-fated trip to Las Vegas to recover it and engages in a poorly planned holdup that lands him in jail with a 33-year sentence.

“I wouldn’t say it’s karma," Edelman says, "but I do think there’s a direct line in those events.”