Notes on O.J. Made in America
Suddenly O. J. Simpson is in the news again, and from all appearances the “Trial of the Twentieth Century” is creeping into the 21st century. The “Juice” is being introduced to another generation in this new century by virtue of two films, one a documentary the other a feature film: O.J. Simpson: Made in America, and The People Vs. O. J. Simpson. I have not seen The People vs O.J. Simpson, but I am watching O.J. Made in America as I write. When the documentary, directed by award winning film maker Ezra Benjamin Edelman, won the coveted Academy Award, I was shocked!
I had already seen Raoul Peck’s marvelous documentary on James Baldwin: “I’m Not Your Negro,” and I knew any movie that beat Peck’s documentary had to be great. For Peck had provided us a poignant portrait of the turbulent history of race relations in 20th century America, told in the words of James Baldwin – one of the most powerful essayist of the last century, whose pen greatly enriched the English language – graphically illustrated with photographs and video. It was a powerful presentation: riveting, enlightening, uplifting, a sublime experience. But the Academy chose the O. J. Documentary instead. I couldn’t wait to see it.
As it turns out O.J. Made in America is a production of ESPN, the sports channel, it’s a part of their excellent 30 for 30 series, and the multi-part series is still being broadcast. I stumbled upon the film when I awoke about five o-clock in the morning, after having fallen asleep with the television on, and found the documentary just beginning. After watching about four hours of this seven-hour epic on race, class, sports and the power of American celebrity culture – which made a demi-god of O.J. and put Donald Trump in the White House – I agree with the Academy. This is a great documentary! I was unable to leave it except to run to the bathroom.
When I first heard about the film my reaction was: “What else is there to know about O.J. Simpson? After all, the cat really ain’t that deep.” I was wrong. A great part of the insightfulness of this documentary is due to the unique perspective Edelman brings to this project. As the son of Marian Wright Edelman, the long-time Director of the Children Defense Fund, the inequities faced by many children at birth has long been a topic of conversation in his household.
His sense of justice is enhanced by the fact that his father Peter B. Edelman is a law professor at Georgetown University. And by virtue of the fact that his mother is Afro-American and his father is a Jew, Ezra has seen the world from both sides. His maternal grandfather is a Baptist minister and his paternal grandfather was a Polish Rabbi who was killed in the holocaust. He attended a Quaker high school and earned a degree from Yale. He was born in Boston and raised in Washington DC. What a unique perspective from which to view American society.
Ezra Benjamin Edelman
Academy Award winning Director
I welcome the arrival of this film with such an even-handed report because I have always advocated looking at the O.J. Simpson affair objectively; give him his day in court and try to live with the verdict. During his dramatic trial for killing his blond wife and her young Jewish lover, I was not one of those black people who was running around chanting “Cut the Juice Loose!” At the time of the trial I was an Editorial Page columnist with the New York Daily News, and I wrote three columns on the incident. I remember well how I came to write them.
At first, like everybody else, I was shocked at the accusation that old smiley O.J. brutally slaughtered two innocent people; not this hail fellow well met. And while I believed he should be assumed innocent, I didn’t insist upon it as an act of blind faith. As the details of their relationship began to emerge, I found his brutality toward his wife Nicole both shocking and appalling. Yet I was troubled by the swelling cries for O.J. Simpson’s head. They reminded me too much of the southern lynch mobs that terrified me in my youth.
Although I had never personally witnessed a lynching, I read about them and saw grim pictures of the victims, and I was living in a southern town where you knew that such an atrocity could happen given the right circumstances – that there was an element of white men in the town, including the sheriff, who were quite capable of forming a lynch mob. So, I was turned off by the howl of the white mob. In fact, my second Daily News Column on the O.J. affair addressed just this issue. Not being a lawyer, I had no original legal insights to offer, so I concentrated on the issues that surrounded the trial.
Hence the first Column was an attempt to place the story of O. J. and Nicole in a historical and cultural context. I talked about how a story about a hyper-masculine black man who marries and murders a beautiful innocent white woman would resonate deep in the collective psyche of Americans. For anyone who studied English literature, as we all had, and is familiar with the classics of the western literary canon, Othello immediately comes to mind. Although, to fully grasp O.J.’s personality, it would require referencing two of Shakespeare’s plays – Othello and Titus Andronicus.
While O.J. can be seen as Othello, because he is accused of murdering his white wife in a fit of jealous rage fueled by his suspicion that she had taken another lover, Othello is constantly referred to even by his enemies as “noble Othello,” or “The noble Moor.” But, alas, O.J.’s character has more in common with the treacherous Aron the Moor in Titus Andronicus. A few years before O.J. was accused of killing his wife I had published a lengthy treatise titled “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: Reflections on Blacks and the Bard,” that was anthologized in the text “Othello: New Essays by Black Writers,” edited by the distinguished Shakespearean scholar Dr. Maithili Kaul and published by Howard University Press.
On that occasion, I had argued that in the dramatis Personae of Shakespeare’s two Moors he invested the polarities of virtue and vice, hero and villain. O.J. embodies aspects of both characters, and like them he is a warrior; not in the literal sense but symbolically. Othello and Aron were both fighting men, soldiers; O.J. is a football player, a blood sport that is a metaphor for war. And all of these images of violent black manhood, these cultural references, are embedded, along with recollections of Emitt Til and Willie Horton, in the racial memory of black and white Americans.
Alas, the most persistent theme in American history is racial conflict between African and European Americans. This is why such intense interest in the Nicole Brown / O.J. Simpson murder case persists; it is powerful testimony to the truth of Nobel Laurate in Literature William Faulkner’s observation “The past isn’t even past.”
Hence when Johnny Cochran took on the defense of O.J. Simpson, he inherited all of the thorny issues surounding the history of race relations in American; including the instinct for mob Justice to exact retribution for what whites view as black offenses against their kith and kin. This issue becomes as explosive as nitro-glycerin if the victim is a white woman, and it becomes even more explosive to the degree that she is blond, beautiful, and apparently innocent. In the minds of many white men it is a blasphemy akin to befouling he precincts of heaven; hence many of them felt O.J. did not even deserve a trial at all. They wanted to string him up from the nearest tree mucho pronto….if they had their druthers.
One of the most valuable achievements of this remarkable documentary film is the skillful ways in which the director weaves vignettes about the broader experience of Afro-Americans with racism in the USA and how it affects the perceptions of Blacks and whites in the way they view the Simpson trial. From the outset blacks viewed O.J.’s guilt with skepticism, and whites dismissed the assumption of innocence. Of course, it goes without saying that I am not talking about all whites or blacks; rather I am speaking in the aggregate based on opinion polls. Hence Johnny Cochran was viewed with growing suspicion by whites, while blacks rooted for his success in defending O.J.
After the racist statements of Detective Mark Furman, who had found the bloody glove which the prosecution said was worn by O.J. while committing the crime, was exposed on an audio tape in the courtroom, the prosecution lost faith with most black Americans – including the Jury. After listening to Detective Furman routinely calling Afro-Americans “niggers;” casually discussing how white cops brutalized and framed innocent black men; and declaring that he would like to see “all niggers killed,” the Black community became convinced that the fix was in and O.J. had been framed by the LAPD based on the lies of a racist white detective.
A Dramatic Moment Tailor Made for A Professional Actor
If it Don’t Fit…You Must Acquit!
The Coup de Grace!
When this compelling evidence Furman’s racism was added to a major blunder by the prosecution, who ordered O.J. to try on the bloody glove and it didn’t fit, it gave Johnny Cochran the opening to charge the jury with the compelling rhyme: “If it doesn’t fit you must acquit!” The film examines this moment in a way that allows us to observe O.J., the experienced screen actor, at work. He recognized the high drama of the moment and made the most of it; turning to the camera and triumphantly thrusting his hands into the air to emphasize the fact that the glove didn’t fit!
His transparent effort to brazenly play to the cheap seats and milk the scene for all it would yield, conjured up the warning of that consummate thespian Sir Lawrence Olivier, who warned aspiring actors: “Acting is a noble profession but the actor must never be caught doing it!” In the film, other members of the prosecution team all say they were against the disastrous courtroom demonstration because it went against a cardinal rule of good lawyering: “Don’t ask questions before a jury when you are not sure of the correct answer.”
But, alas, they say Darden saw this demonstration as an opportunity to kill two quails with one stone: to put O.J. away for murder, and salvage his reputation from the accusation that he was an “Uncle Tom,” who was being used by the white power structure to frame an innocent black star. Hence upon the insistence of Chris Darden, the only black attorney on the prosecution team, the other prosecutors went against their better judgement and allowed O.J. to try on the glove…and it sank their case!
However the thing that enraged white Americans most, was when Johnny Cochran dramatically compared Detective Mark Furman’s beliefs about black people to Adolph Hitler’s beliefs about Jews. This was one of the most telling moments in the film, because it demonstrates the willful ignorance and denial of the obvious similarities of Hitler’s Master Race theories and the racist white supremacist ideology of white America. Alas, the film maker missed a perfect opportunity to clarify this widespread misunderstanding.
The fact of the matter is that Hitler actually imported his racist ideology from the USA. Never has the Afro-American historian Dr. Benjamin Quarles’ axiom rang truer: “He who would understand the complex realities of the present needs the added dimension of historical perspective.” For it is well documented that Hitler adopted his Master race theories from a book by a leader in the American Eugenicist Movement: The Passing of the Great Race, by Madison Grant, published in 1917. We know this because historians have found a letter from Hitler in Grant’s personal papers where the Nazi leader thanks Grant for writing the tome and enthusiatically declares: “Your book is my Bible!” Hence despite the opprobrium heaped upon him Johnny Cochran was right on target. Nazi racial ideology and American white supremacy are the same class of phenomenon and it, like O.J. was made in the good old USA!
Despite this oversight however, the documentary does a good job of connecting the dots when it comes to white racism, Afro-Americans and the O.J. Simpson case. And their inclusion of the brilliant litigator F. Lee Bailey’s cross examination of Mark Thurman on the stand, exposing him as a flaming racist sicko, is one of the outstanding episodes in the film.
They also spared no effort in exploring Johnny Cochran’s brilliance as a trial lawyer; his elegance and eloquence were fully on display. (see video clips of both lawyers in the courtroom at the bottom of this essay) As was the feelings of the jurors, the jubilation of the black community nationwide over O.J.’s acquittal, and the rage of white America that O.J. got away with “a double murder.” The importance and power of this trial can still be seen in the intense emotions it evokes after all these years.
The Master at Work
Mesmerizing the Jurors with Erudition and the Magic Power of Speech
The shock, rage and outrage of white America upon the acquital of O.J.Simpson by a black Jury in Los Angeles is poignantly portrayed in this film. It was as if the heat of white anger was fed by two blazing fires: O.J. got away with murdering some white folks, and the “niggers were laughing!” It seemed that everywhere you looked black people were laughing; to white eyes it must have looked like every black person in the world was laughing!
Based on their comments, it sure sounded like that’s what they thought and it just seemed to piss them off more. I remember network television news reports showing students at the Howard University School of Law, and they were cheering like Howard had just won the annual “Whiskey Bowl” against their hated rival Lincoln University. What happened at Howard was of special interests to white commentators because of it’s venerable reputation as “The Capstone of Negro Higher Education.”
Under the leadership of it’s founding Dean, the brilliant and elegant Harvard trained lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, Howard law laid the legal ground work for a team of Houston’s students led by gifted constitutional lawyer Thurgood Marshall – who would go on to become the first Black Justice on the Supreme Court – changed American society into a better place with their unanimous victory in the historic Brown V. The Board of Ed Decision.
The white folks got so upset after repeated viewings of the jubilatiion at Howard that I felt compelled to write my third Daily News column on the history of white anxiety over black laughter in America. My intention was to tutor my readers – and those who would hear me read and discuss the column on my radio show “Talk Back,” broadcast over WBAI FM – on the fact that white people have always gotten uptight when the see black people laughing.
This has been discussed by white commentators going back to the 18th century, who pointed out that the source of white unease lay in the fact that they couldn’t see what was funny, and suspected that we might be laughing at them. There are numerous references to this in the writings of white Americans from literary figures and journalists to private diaries. Afro-American cultural critic Mel Watkins discusses this question in some depth in his seminal text on Afro-american comedy “On the Real Side: The Underground Tradition of Black Humor.”
At one point white anxiety over black laughter became so intense that “Laughing Barrels” were installed on the down town streets so if blacks felt like laughing in the presence of whites they had to rush to the barrels, stick their heads into them, and then laugh! None of this was mentioned in the film, but then this was my unique contribution to news commentary…I had been a history professor before I became a journalist. Everything becomes clearer when viewed from the hindsight of history.
Among the special virtues of this film, which suffers an embarrassment of riches regarding virtue, is that it goes on to give us a good summation of O.J.’s life after the trial. He tries desperately to regain the love of a white public that once adored the ground he walked on, but millions of his former fans were through with him for good. And all the money he was making as the top pitchman in America evaporated. For whether he killed his wife or not, the 911 tapes from Nicole left no doubt that he certainly battered and abused her; he would have been jailed for treating a dog that way.
One of the most shameful and embarrassing episodes in this richly sourced documentary is the hero’s embrace that O.J. received from the black community. He did not deserve it! O.J. Simpson had been running from any involvement with the black community as hard as he ran from defenders on the fotball field ever since he was in college, which is made clear in the film. However, I became aware of this right after O.J. won the much coveted Heisman Trophy, which is annually awarde to “the best player in college football.”
I attended his party celebrating the event at USC, as the guest of my good friend Bobby Barnes, a baseball great and the father of Barry Bonds – who should be in the Hall of Fame – and I noticed that O.J’s friends were virtually all white. They shamelessly genuflected before him like a bronze God! The white girls flocked around him like bees to honey, and he possessed the sort of arrogance that made him think any woman in the room was his for the asking.
I noticed this when he attempted to flirt with the lady I was with, a stunning beauty with a Ph.d in mathemetics. However it was comical because she got off on brains not brawn, and had become mesmerized by a lecture I gave at UCLA on the dynamics of mass transformative movements as a class of phemomena by conducting a comparative analysis of the Black Liberation movement in the US, the American Feminist movement and the Chinese Revolution…which had inspired a standing ovation from the audience. And since the country was aflame with mass protests this was a very hot topic of broad interests….plus I was quite a physical specimen myself – a former highschool football player six feet tall, a solid 215 pounds – and a silver tongued ladies man. O.J. was a barely articulate square with no game off the football field, who got by on his looks and celebrity status. I was amused at his futile attempts to impressed Dr. Fine.
Dr. Fine Braiding my Hair
The Juice bombed with this Brainiac
Shortly after the party, a friend of mine with the United Negro College Fund approached him about doing a public service spot soliciting money for Black colleges. O.J. refused the request and frankly told her that he did not wish to be identified with anything racial. My impression of him from that day forward was that he is what the old folks in Florida, when I was a boy, called: “A White Folks Nigger!” Hence while this superb and candid film offered many new insights, it did nothing to change my initial impression….in fact the revelations of this in-depth documentary confirmed it.
The Moment O.J. Tries on the Glove
F. Lee Bailey’s Exposes Furman’s Racism on the Stand
The Great Johnny Cochran in his Closing Argument
Playthel Benjamin Interviewed by NBC on O.J
In the Studio of WBAI FM, New York circa 1994
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
March 5, 2017