Dir.: Ezra Edelman | Documentary with O.J. Simpson | USA 2016 | 448 min.
OJ Simpson is not the only one on trial in Ezra Edelman’s documentary. This meticulous analysis of the circumstances of this American tragedy is worthy of a Dreiser novel, and critiques a society as a whole and its main driving forces: entertainment and violence. Few embody these two pillars of the US society as much as Simpson – after all, in a country where sport is just one form of entertainment, OJ represents both, since success in American football relies on disabling the opponent, often causing permanent injury.
Told in five chapters, we meet 20 year old OJ in 1967 at USC where he is a promising running back for the Football team. He would soon win the Heisman trophy as the best collegiate player and, even more importantly, where he carefully distanced himself from other Afro-American athletes, like Mohamed Ali, who was jailed for refusing to go to Vietnam; and Tommy Smith, protesting for Black Power at the 1968 Olympics. Simpson’s standard answer was “I m not black. I am OJ”. We see an obnoxious Bob Hope at the USC auditorium, praising the students for “ having no riot, no demos, not even a sit-in”. Simpson’s natural charm made it possible for him to overcome the racial barrier: after being drafted No. One by the Buffalo Bills, and gaining a lucrative professional contract, also becoming the first black standard bearer for a major company: Hertz, the leading Car Rental company. Simpson also began his movie career, whilst still playing his sport, he would appear among others in ‘Cassandra Crossing’ and ‘Capricorn One’, whose director Peter Hymes became a close friend of OJ and features extensively in this documentary. In 1977, Simpson, who had married in 1966 and had three children, met eighteen year old Nicole Brown, and told a friend on the spot: “I am going to marry her.” Whilst this took another seven years, Simpson got divorced from his first wife in 1979.
Chapter two is devoted to the violent racial history of LAPD under his chief William H. Parker in the 1950s and 1960s, then under his successors, culminating in the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the successive LA riots which saw four police officers acquitted. This unprecedented level of street violence passed OJ Simpson by. He had made the acquaintance of businessmen and members of the glamour set like the lawyer Robert Kardashian, who was later on his defence team and kept believing in OJ’s innocence, until his death. But on the home front everything was falling apart: Nicole gave birth to two children but called the police on eight occasions after being attacked by her husband. The couple split up, reconciled, before the final parting in 1994. On 13th June 1994 the bodies of Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were found on the property of her Brentwood condominium in LA. OJ had left late the night before for Chicago, but pleaded innocent of the gruesome stabbings. Nevertheless his DNA was found at the scene; together with his bloody shoe prints. The police also found his glove, which would late become very important during the trial. On June 17th, Simpson promised to give himself up to the police. But he drove in a Ford Bronco (where the police had also found blood samples of him and Nicole) on the freeway in LA, holding a gun to his head, soon followed by up to twenty police cars. The ”pursuit” lasted for hours, before Simpson drove to his villa in Brentwood. Passers-by joined in the commotion, shouting “Run, OJ, run”. The whole episode was filmed from a helicopter, and watched nationwide. He gave himself up later to the police, after being allowed to talk to his mother.
The trial went on from 9.11.94 to 3.10.95, watched by up to 95 million on TV. Simpson pleaded not guilty. The prosecution team was led by DA Marcia Clark, the defence by Robert Shapiro, the latter claimed, never to have lost a case. The forensic evidence showed clearly that OJ Simpson was guilty; for example, after the murder he came up with three different stories how he cut his thumb, which bled all over the victim and the surrounding area. The glove signified the turning point during the trial. It is rumoured that Shapiro told OJ not to take his anti-rheumatic medication, so his hand would swell, and not fit into the glove. For whatever reason, the glove did not fit properly on the witness stand. Furthermore, police office Mark Fuhrman, who had collected evidence in the Simpson case, was a known racist, who had used the word “nigger” on more than one occasion. Whilst his testimony was not challenged by the defence, his history did help OJ Simpson. On 3rd October 1995 OJ Simpson was found “not guilty’ by the jury. Many commentators believed, that the black members of the jury saw the Simpson case as a “payback” for the Rodney King verdict. A poll after the trial showed, that 77% of the black population thought that OJ was innocent, whilst 72%f whites thought him guilty.
Whilst the criminal trial of Simpson was held in downtown LA, the private suit by the Goldman and Brown families was heard in Santa Monica, a much more affluent part of the city. All in all both families claimed 43 million in compensation, after Simpson was found guilty of causing the death of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman. The parents of Goldman, very much aware of the fact, that OJ was hiding money in fronted companies, started to follow him around the country “we will never make him forget, that we re there. After having given up the guardianship for his two children he had with Nicole, he had to leave his Brentwood villa. A video recording showed him taking down the American flag; he was full of self-pity, seeing himself as the victim of racial prejudice, after most of his friends from the upper echelons of society deserted him. Suddenly, OJ Simpson was feeling like a black man. But he could not do without fame: in Miami he was the “Godfather” to a scene of thuggish admirers of both sexes: his new girl friend was a Nicole look-alike blonde. More and more rumours spread: Simpson had indeed confessed to the double murders, and a book deal was reached with the Rupert Murdoch press. But “If I did it” was yanked at the last minute by Murdoch himself, who fired the editor.
The – so far – last chapter in the rise and fall of OJ Simpson began on 13.9.2007 in the Las Vegas Palace Station Hotel, where OJ and his friends got entangled with another ‘gang’ over the sale of Simpson memorabilia. It was more like a Marx Brothers comedy: OJ shouting “nobody leaves the room”, guns were raised. But nobody came to harm – apart from OJ. On October 3rd 2008, – thirteen years after his acquittal in LA – he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for robbery and kidnapping. Experts agreed, that under normal circumstances, the punishment would have been three years – but the law took its revenge “in the fifth quarter of the game”. OJ Simpson is serving his sentence in Lovelock Prison, Nevada – he is up for parole in October 2017.
Edelman is very hard on ESPN the TV network that produced the documentary: he rightly ascertains that mainstream TV, with its sensationalist reporting, uses violence to raise the viewing figures. On the other hand, Nicole Simpson-Brown was the victim of domestic violence which has never been taking seriously by the police. The male offenders get a slap on the wrist if they are ordinary citizens. In the Simpson case, the perpetrator was a celebrity and was potentially the main reason why Nicole’s many calls for help NEVER resulted in any action against OJ. In spite of the running time, OJ: Made in America, is compulsive viewing. It shows the correlation between individual and institutional violence: the glorification of military and sport personalities in the USA is a celebration of male violence, supported by the media. The victims, like Nicole Brown, are merely statistics. AS
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