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ESPN’s recent documentary, O.J.: Made in America provides an excellent look at the complicated intersections of race and class in the U.S. The five-part series documents how O.J. Simpson rose to fame as a Heisman trophy winner at USC, the first NFL player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, and a trend-setting spokesperson for various corporations.

Born in the San Francisco projects, Simpson’s trajectory mirrors that of many Horatio Alger characters. That it occurred in the 1960s made Simpson a perfect example for those who argued (like many today) that if Blacks would just keep their heads down, work hard, and buy into the values of White America, success and acceptance would follow. Interviews from the time indicate that Simpson largely bought into this idea himself.

For me, the relationship between Simpson and race was the most interesting aspect of the documentary. His charisma and success on the football field allowed him to largely transcend the racial restrictions of the time and live a life surrounded by wealthy Whites. Despite this, the trial for the murders he committed (and nearly everybody in the documentary – even his friends – is convinced that he committed them) became a referendum on race in L.A. following the Rodney King trial. Anger at the LAPD’s racial injustice led to a nation that was sharply divided along racial lines about Simpson’s acquittal by a mostly-Black jury but the trial also made Simpson Black again in the eyes of the public and a pariah among his former White friends.

Today, Simpson is in prison as a result of a ridiculously long sentence for a relatively minor crime in which he attempted to steal sports memorabilia that he believed had been stolen from him. Those in the documentary believe that this sentence is essentially payback for Simpson getting away with murder, which was itself payback for Rodney King. Some even blame Simpson’s mid-’90s trial for exacerbating the racial divide in the U.S. The juxtaposition of White and Black interviewees and their views on particular issues is also revealing, even if the conclusions that I took from these comparisons are not likely those that members of the Trump demographic are likely to draw.

Overall, I highly recommend all five parts. I watched most of them on demand through my cable provider and they are also available on ESPN’s Watch ESPN website. Be aware, though, that there are a number of descriptions (including recordings of 911 calls) of Simpson’s domestic violence prior to the murders and a few extremely graphic images of the murdered bodies of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman that I had to look away from during the discussion of the trial. There may be some short portions that could be used for class discussions, though the issues involved are probably best considered with a complete viewing.


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