Friday 19 January 2018

Tommy Conlon: American dream laid bare in the trials and tribulations of OJ Simpson


OJ Simpson with Attorney Robert Kardashian at the so called 'trial of the century'. Photo: Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images
OJ Simpson with Attorney Robert Kardashian at the so called 'trial of the century'. Photo: Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images

Tommy Conlon

He is apparently a model prisoner these days, holding out for a parole which in theory could come as soon as next October.

OJ Simpson is serving his time in a jail outside of Lovelock, Nevada, a rural town some 90 miles from Reno. He will be 70 in July. He was sentenced to a maximum 33 years for his part in an armed robbery and kidnapping at a Las Vegas hotel-casino in 2007.

He had of course been found innocent in a much more high-profile legal drama some 12 years earlier. The so-called trial of the century looked like an open-and-shut case when it began.

Nicole Brown, his estranged wife, and her friend Ron Goldman, had been found dead in a lake of blood at her home in June 1994. Simpson was the prime suspect. The evidence, both scientific and circumstantial, seemed conclusive.

Last year a film revisiting the story was released. In February, it won the Oscar for best documentary feature. OJ: Made in America has won over 40 other awards. Its central thesis is captured in the title: only America could have produced a god and monster like OJ Simpson.

Equally, only the USA could have produced a film of this calibre and ambition. It joins the ranks of seminal sports documentaries such as Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, The Endless Summer and Baseball, the epic 20-hour television history made by the legendary Ken Burns.

Another vastly ambitious project was ESPN's 30 for 30 series, commissioned in 2007 by the network to mark its 30 years in business by making 30 prestige films covering that amazing American landscape where sport and society intersect.

The series continued beyond its original quota and OJ: Made in America, with its near eight-hour duration, was another quantum leap in terms of budget and scale.

It is available for streaming on various online platforms. But last week BBC4 showed it over five episodes on five consecutive nights.

Essentially, the film's makers seek to explain why Simpson was acquitted from a seemingly impossible position.

In doing so they expose the societal dynamics that lie at the heart of so many US stories: race, class, law, policing, money and celebrity.

Simpson and his three siblings were reared mostly by their mother alone in a deprived part of San Francisco. His father was gay and largely absent from their lives; he died of Aids in 1986.

Orenthal James had stunning athletic talent as a gridiron footballer. In 1973, he broke the NFL's all-time rushing record for a single season by carrying the ball for over 2,000 yards.

"OJ Simpson could run sideways faster than most men could run forward," recalls one of his old Buffalo Bills team-mates. "I thought this was like being on a team with Babe Ruth," recalled another.

When it came to politics, however, he didn't want to know. African-American athletes such as the 'Black Power' Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the basketball phenomenon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and of course Muhammad Ali, had become prominent campaigners in the wider civil rights movement. Another activist, the sociologist Harry Edwards, tried to recruit Simpson to the cause. "His response was, 'I'm not black, I'm OJ'," Edwards said.

Simpson by now had a lucrative portfolio of corporate endorsements. Years before Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, he was a pioneering figure because of his "crossover appeal". He broke beyond the boundaries of sport and race with a series of TV commercials for Hertz. He was rich and famous; he had a luminous smile and easy charisma. He was non-threatening to a white audience. In this sense, says the journalist Robert Lipsyte, he was "a counter-revolutionary athlete".

Living with his first wife and their children in Brentwood, a white and wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, he was detached from the turmoil around him. Black neighbourhoods of the city were on a permanent war footing with an LA police department that felt more like "an occupying army", according to one contributor.

There had been the Watts riots of 1965; protests over the shooting dead of Eulia May Love in '79; and riots over the Rodney King beating in '91 when the four policemen involved were found not guilty by an all-white jury.

Simpson steadfastly remained above the fray. A clip from the television archives shows him explaining that he hadn't been personally affected by racism: "I was raised in the sports world where you are only judged by your abilities and what you have to give."

By the early 1990s, Nicole Brown-Simpson was a familiar caller on the 911 emergency line. "He is going to kill me," she told a policeman during one of their many visits to the family home. The cops, dazzled by his fame and charm, repeatedly turned a blind eye.

When they found her body on that June night in '94, her neck had been almost completely severed. Ron Goldman had bled to death from multiple knife wounds.

A few days later OJ Simpson took off down an LA freeway in his white Ford Bronco pursued by several police cars. Some 90 million Americans watched the drama unfold live on television. Thousands more thronged the freeway and turned up at his home, where he was finally arrested. They were cheering him on, apparently thrilled by his defiance of the LAPD.

"What are all these n*****s doing in Brentwood?" he asked one detective, as he was driven away.

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