January 1, 2016 -- If anyone asks you, “Whatever happened to O.J. Simpson?” you can direct them towards this exhaustively complete documentary film about the former football star, if they have an extra eight hours or so to watch it. This is a film about America, and how its people love payback.
A mostly black jury acquitted Simpson of two murders when it shouldn't have in 1995. That was payback for all the black people harassed by police. A white Nevada judge sentenced Simpson to 33 years for a small time robbery in 2005, much longer than usual for such a case. That was payback for the previous murder trial verdict. On November 8, voters elected Republican Donald Trump as president, putting Republicans in control of all three branches of the federal government. That was payback for political correctness and the indignity of eight years living under the presidency of Democrat Barack Obama, the first black man to hold the office.
Americans love payback. Simpson's life was all about it. He grew up in the low income housing projects of the Potrero Hill neighborhood in San Francisco. His father was a drag queen who later died of AIDS. Simpson was a smooth talker, smart, handsome, charming, charismatic, a hustler who had a way out of poverty. He was a fast runner. He starred in track and football. He hit the big time at the University of Southern California. A Hesiman Trophy winner, Simpson went on to a record-breaking career in the NFL.
Not content with football stardom, Simpson charted out a career path for himself in broadcasting and movies. He was the first black star to make millions in TV commercials and product endorsements. On the surface, he looked happy and successful, but who was the real O.J. Simpson?
This film uses extensive interviews with his friends and relatives to delve into that question at the heart of this movie. It appears Simpson was not just an actor in movies and on TV, he was also an actor in life. The movie gives the impression that Simpson allowed only brief glimpses of the real O.J. What most people saw was a carefully constructed façade.
In order to further his ambitions, Simpson tried to transcend race. Remarkably, he seems to have succeeded. He achieved a race-neutral image. He avoided all racial issues and controversies. At the same time, other black athletes, like Mohammed Ali, Kareem Jabbar, Bill Russell and Jim Brown, were on the front lines of Civil Rights battles, and they paid a high price for that. Simpson wanted no part of racial controversies.
Simpson moved easily among whites in circles of power and wealth. He was charming, and non-threatening to whites, but that would change. Simpson loved the fame and celebrity, and he loved the adoration of the public. He could not get enough of it.
O.J., a notorious womanizer, left his wife of 10 years, Marguerite L. Whitley, for the classic California Girl beauty, Nicole Brown. Their increasingly destructive love-hate relationship would be their undoing. The film uses numerous interviews with friends and relatives of both Simpson and Brown to paint a detailed picture of their marriage, their breakup, and the murders that changed everything for so many people.
This movie also provides a rich social context for the so-called “trial of the century.” This includes the infamous Watts riots and the riots that took place after the not guilty verdicts were announced in the case of the policemen involved in the beating of Rodney King. It is telling that one of the jurors in Simpson's murder trial was a former member of the Black Panthers, a group originally formed in response to police harassment of blacks.
The elation of blacks at Simpson's acquittal of murder charges, however was tempered by the fact that it was Simpson's money, and his team of high profile lawyers who secured the verdict, and everybody knew it. Several defense and prosecution lawyers from that trial appear in the film. Mark Furman, the police officer who became the prime target of the defense lawyers, also speaks at length in the film.
The last two trials, a wrongful death lawsuit, and the kidnapping and armed robbery trial, are covered in the last part of the documentary. At the end, the country had changed. Simpson's co-defendants all took plea bargain deals and turned against Simpson. The old racial solidarity was gone. As Carrie Bess, a plain-spoken juror from the first trial put it: “Back then, we took care of our own. Now, you're on your own.” That sums up life in America these days pretty well. As the saying goes, “The 'We Society' has been replaced by the 'Me Society.'” We are definitely not all in this together.
This documentary details that long journey from the 1960s to the new millennium in societal and racial changes, as well as changes in the enigmatic O.J. Simpson himself. He got his payback for being born into poverty and oppression, rose to great heights, then fell back to the depths again.
O.J. Simpson turned his back on his own people, then turned back to them again. He tried to live the life of a white businessman, then went back to the life of a hustler, like he was as a teenager in San Francisco. Simpson tried to transcend race, but ended up being defined by it.
Is this the end for O.J. Simpson? Maybe, but given his survival instincts and his competitive nature, I would not count him out. As long as it is, this documentary feels unfinished because O.J. Simpson is still alive, still capable of another chapter in his very strange life. Simpson's life, as seen in this documentary, has a lot of relevance to American society today, particularly after the massive racial divide evident in America today. This film rates a B.
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