It was a hot Friday night in the summer of 1994. My parents and I had just walked into our house from a lengthy little league game of mine. Despite hours in the heat, I was wound up from the excitement of a win and eager to dive into the sack of treats from a newly opened McDonald’s we stopped by on the way home. Before I bit into my first salty, golden fry, I heard my mother yell from the living room. “Come in here now!” she said, as my father and I darted out of the kitchen. “They’re pursuing O.J. in California!”
My dad took his normal place in a big leather chair on the right side of the room. I plopped down right in front of the TV, still in uniform with legs crossed and eyes latched onto the screen. “O.J.?” I said. My small head turned to my mother, as she bent down to shuffle the long sweaty hair I had gained from the game that night with her hands. “Who’s O.J.?” I questioned.
“O.J. Simpson,” she started to say, as her eyes made their way back to the television set. “He’s a very famous football player. He’s been in some movies, too.” Our eyes stayed glued on that TV for the rest of the evening, until finally my parents told me it was time I went to bed.
That wouldn’t be the last time I heard about O.J. Simpson. It was just the beginning of a year-long trial to determine whether he had murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and waiter Ron Goldman. Even at my young age, I would come in almost daily and ask my parents had they heard any updates on the proceedings. Forget “Days of Our Lives” – the O.J. Simpson trial was the great soap opera of the 1990s, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any American who wasn’t hooked.
In our current digital age where so many devices and services compete for our time, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever have a media event that completely captures our country for such a long period of time as this trial did in the mid-1990s. Little did any of us know the debate over the eventual verdict would go on for far longer than the trial did; on October 3, 1995, Orenthal James Simpson was acquitted by a jury for both murders.
I remember coming in from school that day and being completely stunned. It was so evident to myself and everyone I knew he did it. There was countless DNA and forensic data placing him at the scene of crime. His blood was all over the home and the vehicles. There was a history of Simpson beating his ex-wife and an insane jealousy for her being around other men. The motive was clear. The evidence was there. And yet, Simpson walked out of a Los Angeles court room on this October day a free man.
In the years that followed, a simple criminal trial became a larger national conversation on race relations in the United States. There was a divide among some white communities who saw O.J. as a black celebrity who got away with murder and some black communities who viewed him as an innocent man who had been manipulated by a white justice system. In my young mind, that conflict lingered for a while, until eventually, as with all celebrity-based stories, it drifted away from public consciousness.
Two years later, Simpson was found responsible for the crimes in a civil lawsuit case and ordered to pay over $30 million in damages to the victims’ families. It was the final time he would get much mainstream attention for a decade until, in a bizarre series of events in Las Vegas, Simpson found himself behind bars again. This time, it was for being involved in a robbery at a hotel in the city. Unlike in his first criminal trial, O.J. was found guilty this time and still sits in a Nevada jail till this day.
After over 20 years since the trial that shook our country, why do I care to revisit it now? The easy answer is Hollywood did that job for me. First came the excellent mini-series “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” but the latest work on the subject, an eight-hour-long documentary from ESPN titled “O.J.: Made in America,” is what really set my mind ablaze on the subject.
“Made in America” could in fact be the defining documentary on race relations of our time. It’s that good. Carefully over five parts, filmmakers carry us on a journey of white-and-black conflict in Los Angeles that consumed the news during O.J. Simpson’s meteoric rise at USC. We learn Simpson was a football player who would “transcend race” and in some circles was known as being a black man who wanted to be more a part of white culture than the one he was raised in years earlier.
As O.J. continued to break down walls in football, race relations in Los Angeles continued to break down, as well. The tension between the black community and a mostly white police force would come to an epic explosion in the early 1990s with the beating of Rodney King, the acquittal of the police officers behind the beating, and the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal. O.J. – who by this point was one of the most famous men in America and a certified movie star, at that – stayed away from the conflict. It was only when he got involved in the biggest murder case of the 1990s he found himself in the middle of this historic back-and-forth.
The documentary series handles these subjects in such a sharp, exquisite way that expertly makes one feel what it was like to be black in Los Angeles during these tumultuous years. One also walks away with a profound understanding of just how big O.J. was in our country and why the trial garnered so much attention.
The last two parts of series are the most detailed and revealing. Simpson’s defense team, clearly seeing it would be impossible to win on evidence, geared the trial towards possible racism within the L.A. police force who handled the investigation of the case. For a jury that was 75-percent black, the strategy turned out to be an effective one. After over 200 days of testimony and evidence, the jury took only a few hours to reach a verdict: O.J. Simpson was not guilty.
That moment and that decision have compelled me for so long. For the general public like myself, we felt just as invested in the trial as everyone in the court room. We thought O.J. did it. And in the years following the trial, not one single suspect has been produced who could have even possibly been capable of committing the highly publicized crimes. In other words, despite the civil lawsuit and criminal trial for robbery that followed, we were never given closure.
I grew in a community that was Southern, mostly white, and mostly conservative. When I asked people about the trial, the answer was always the same: “Well you see Alex, he got off because most of the jurors were black, and they wanted to see a black man go free.” The argument just didn’t make sense to me. Trials happen all the time in America with mostly black juries and black defendants on the hot seat, and many of those black defendants still go to jail based on the evidence involved. Why would O.J. be any different?
What “Made in America” does so effectively is telling how intense race relations were in Los Angeles in the years leading up to the trial, how brutal the police force could be, and the great injustice the black community felt had been dealt to them, not just by their city but by their country, as well. One of the older jurors is asked in part five if she felt the decision to acquit O.J. was “payback for Rodney King.” “Yes,” she says quickly. “Do you think that’s really right?” the interviewer presses on. She just holds up her hands.
The filmmakers then give us a collage of images from the past race relations not just in California, but in our nation. Black men hanging from trees, with their now single children watching from below. Black women getting beaten by police. Riots bringing fire and bloodshed to communities countrywide. And in that moment, I got it. I got my answer I wanted to know so desperately since my youth. I understood why the jury did what it did. All of the pent-up anger and angst of a white justice system manifested itself in that verdict one October day. Perhaps “payback” is an inadequate term. To the jurors that day, they had served up their own justice to a system they felt had unfairly treated black men and women for decades.
The question left open by the documentary (rightfully so, because no filmmaker should be brazen enough to answer it) is was the “payback” justified in this situation? Was such a clear and decisive murder case which saw two human lives lost the right time to display this unorthodox revenge? That’s up for the viewer to decide. My guess is just as it did in the late 1990s, the reactions will fall among racial lines.
As for me? I think if O.J. Simpson did commit the murders, he should obviously be serving a life sentence for them. And I would say the majority of people out there, regardless of race, would express the same belief. I don’t think “Made in America” is trying to convince of us of whether O.J. did it or didn’t do it, though; its genius is in making us understand why this jury did what it did and why even after all these years, the trial stands as such a hot-button topic in our culture.
If I had been a black man in mid-1990s Los Angeles who had been and seen my family and friends been harassed by law enforcement and endure unfair treatment for years who was on the jury, I’m not sure how I would’ve voted. Maybe I would’ve overlooked evidence. Maybe I would’ve just looked at the whole deal as a corrupt white legal system trying to set up another innocent black man. Maybe that fact alone would’ve influenced my decision more than any DNA or glove could ever do.
Maybe I would’ve voted for acquittal. As a white man living in America in 2016, I’ll never know exactly what I would’ve done had I been in that role. But at least now, thanks to this superb documentary everyone should see, I know why a juror would’ve felt compelled to make the decision he or she made. No, we never got a direct confession from O.J. No, no other suspects have ever been produced or found guilty. But in some ways, after completing this series, I have closure.