Dec 29, 2016

O.J: Made In America

I saw this epic documentary by Ezra Edelman on a big screen at one seating, 11 am to 7 pm, and it took my breath away. It has the scope of a Shakespearean tragedy and the feel of a spiraling, prismatic nightmare. It is crammed with information and raises a thousand questions for every answer it seeks to shed light on. It has a colorful, entertaining and deeply revelatory cast of characters, from best friends, managers, former attorneys, jury members, prosecutors, police officers, and a particularly fabulous helicopter pilot. Some of them, like Marcia Clark, O.J.'s manager, and Mark Fuhrman leave you wanting answers. It is an absolutely riveting and thoroughly depressing film: eight hours of much that is wrong with this country through the rise and fall of Orenthal James Simpson.

You may remember the murders, the white Bronco and the trial and the surreal circus we witnessed for 8 months in the mid-nineties. This movie puts it all into context. From Simpson's street smart childhood in the San Francisco projects to his astounding feats as a college football hero and adored celebrity, to his ignominious fall, the portrait that emerges is the exact opposite of a hero.
This country has an unhealthy obsession with heroes and it slaps the term on all kinds of undeserving people quite lightly. This tends to happen particularly in sports. I have never fathomed why people think that someone as evidently rank as Michael Phelps is a hero. Look what happened to Lance Armstrong, who abused the privilege. And then there is O.J. Simpson, who took his own glorification to new highs and lows.
He was extremely good looking, a gifted athlete, and according to many people in the film, an irresistible charmer. He had an amazing rags-to-riches story and all the talent, fame, money and public adoration someone could possibly wish for. But soon a jarring note is introduced. The young college football player refused to participate in the Civil Rights movement when Mohammed Ali was gathering the biggest black athletes in America to join in the protest, a decision that cost many of them dearly. We learn through the course of the film that Simpson's indifference, which you could ascribe to youthful ambition was only one manifestation of a deeply narcissistic, manipulative personality. The personality that emerges is that of a coward and an egomaniac with deep reserves of unfathomable anger: driven, controlling, manipulative, paranoid and deeply self-hating, to the point that he did not consider himself Black. His tragedy is that his undeniable talent and consequent celebrity amplified an already damaged ego.
Hand in hand with the exploration into Simpson's personality, Edelman weaves a compelling look into the country he was born into; a country that still refuses to fully acknowledge and heal the disastrous and ongoing ramifications of slavery and racism.
The Los Angeles where O.J. moved after he retired from playing for Buffalo was a sunny haven for people with money but a hell of a segregated town with a police department that was notoriously abusive of the Black community. By the time his saga happened, L.A. had witnessed the Rodney King beating and story after story of police brutality against African-Americans.
Hindsight is truly 20-20. At the time of the trial, I made a $100 bet that O.J. would be found guilty. The evidence, after all, was overwhelming. Perhaps I was too new to the U.S. and was unaware of the enormous gulf between blacks and whites and the racial tensions bubbling under the surface. After watching this film, the competing black and white perspectives are clearly laid bare. The insurmountable differences in the perception of Simpson: to white people, a cold-blooded liar and murderer; to the black community, just another black man framed by racist police, dramatically divided the country thanks to years of mutual distrust and prejudice and to blatant manipulation by the defense and the prosecution alike. Any white person who does not understand how the not-guilty verdict was arrived at will have a much clearer understanding.

This movie covers many layers of the American experience. The first one, which I had forgotten about and which shocked me, and perhaps the only one which is truly universal, is domestic violence. Nicole Brown would routinely call 911 from the couple's home in Brentwood fearing for her life. Quite simply, she was a battered wife. Celebrity or not, her case is yet another statistic of spousal abuse that ends in murder, when victims don't leave and abusers are not arrested and locked up. Poor Ronald Goldman, a waiter who came by to deliver a pair of glasses, was caught in the maniacal rage of a wife beater. The documentary shows the gruesome pictures of the crime scene that were left out of the newscasts and the newspapers at the time. They are so extreme, they were not fit to be seen by the public at large.

The heady, highly toxic and very American cocktail of money and celebrity allows people to get away with murder; in this case, literally. Because Simpson was a celebrity (which turned him virtually into a demigod) and lived in a tony white neighborhood, a policeman shows up after one of Nicole's frightened calls and finds her hiding in the bushes, bruised and scared out of her wits, but instead of cuffing O.J. and putting him in the car, he lets him get dressed, and next thing he knows, O.J. is escaping in his Bentley. Then, as she did time and again, she declines to press charges. It could be out of love, codependency, fear, the fact that he was a meal ticket for her entire family, or possibly all of the above. Certainly his money and status played a part.
The two almost comically incompetent detectives that arrested Simpson after the chase make every effort to allow him to acquit himself in their interrogation. Hell, consider that surreal chase in which a squad of patrol cars basically accompanies him as if at a procession. Edelman shows aerial footage of what happens to any regular idiot who uses his car to flee the long arm of the LAPD. They don't get a parade like O.J. They get totaled.
I don't have to tell you about the distortion of reality that this insane American cult of cash and celebrity brings: we are about to inaugurate a demented orange baboon as President of the United States because of money and fame. In fact, the parallels with Trump are inevitable. In both cases, there are reams of incontrovertible evidence as to the toxicity of both celebrities' characters. They are both pathologically narcissistic.

When it comes to the trial itself, and the justice system that allowed such an unseemly spectacle is where you tear out your hair in despair. Justice for all... that $50,000 a day in lawyer fees can buy. An incompetent and self-serving District Attorney and a beleaguered prosecution team which in hindsight made terrible, but almost inevitable, tactical mistakes, all due to the racial makeup of the story, including the location of the jury trial, the jury selection and the choice of judge, among many others. As the trial laid bare at the time, the American justice system is designed to work only for those who can afford it.

Which brings us back to the "race card". It is a disgrace, but a fact and at the core of this story, that this is how Simpson's legal fate was going to be played out. The most exquisite and painful irony is that, until he became a murderer, O.J. Simpson wanted nothing to do with black people. Except for his childhood friends, all his friends were white. He had always been out for himself; never had a shred of conscience, racial or otherwise. But the minute it was time to elicit sympathy, he suddenly found his roots. He had people like Johnny Cochran fashion a racial narrative for him, complete with a racist cop supposedly planting evidence. Yet Simpson and his Dream Team were not alone in making it about race. The prosecution made it about race when it changed the location of the trial, when it introduced Christopher Darden, and when it chose eight black women as jurors. According to Marcia Clark, it turned out that they had no sympathy for Nicole Brown: the white interloper wife of a Black man.
Race is the poison that feeds this terrible story from inception, and Edelman is not shy to explore its worst aspects - Simpson as the unthreatening negro, the Uncle Tom-ish Hertz spokesman, the guy who had to get the white woman, who wondered what were "all those niggers" doing in his neighborhood, welcoming him home after the chase. Charitably, his loyal friends insist that all he wanted was to transcend race. He had a point, to a point. He wanted to be equal, in his own selfish way. However, his behavior was far from an appeal to equality and brotherly love. He was indifferent to his community and became a sad minstrel sideshow for the mainstream media. He lacked what true heroes have: dignity.

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