How someone views O.J. Simpson depends on who they are, where they come from, and their perspective on race, justice, power, and the media. These elements came together in what can only be called “the trial of the century” when Simpson was tried for committing the double murder of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. The television broadcast of a low-speed chase of Simpson’s Ford Bronco, and the dramatic fitting of the bloody gloves found at the scene, remain seared in the collective memory.
Ezra Edelman, director of ESPN’s O.J. Simpson: Made in America
, comments on a telling interview Simpson once gave, confessing that his biggest goal in life was to become famous — not to be the world’s greatest football player. He wanted people to see him and recognize him, and this is what likely informed his behavior. He was so comfortable on camera, many fans felt like they knew him personally as they watched the trial on their TV screens. Simpson loved to be loved by America.
There are many ideas to be reconciled when viewing the O.J. Simpson trial. Football fans saw their hero being taken down. Some saw it as a violent man hurting a woman, the domestic violence angle earning sympathy. It was seen as a black man being arrested for a crime as a pretense for racial injustice — an idea that is still very strong in today’s culture.
Despite the O.J. Simpson trial being long over, it left behind something to be discussed. It left something to be talked about, as many still have an opinion of the trial, and want to think it through. It was a trial of the century, and made its lasting impression.
Ezra Edelman: In some ways when you look at the tale of O.J. Simpson it goes well beyond O.J. Simpson. And it really is a conversation and a story that involves everything in our culture – race, celebrity, power, masculinity, the criminal justice system, the media. Like it goes on and on and on and on. And I think people respond to this story specifically in terms of who they are and where they come from - black, white, young, old, male, female. There’s something in this film that will personally speak to you.
O..J.’s drive I think was very simple. He says it plainly in an interview that’s in the first hour of the documentary. He said when I walk down the street I want people to know me. He had an ambition to be famous from the time he was young. He didn’t an ambition to be the greatest football player ever. He didn’t have an ambition to be rich. He had an ambition to be famous. Now what that means in some ways is O.J. had also an ambition to be loved and loved by everybody. And I think it informs this story in a very powerful way because it speaks to how all of us were seduced by him. And the image that we saw on the screen both frankly as a football player not just because he was wildly successful but that he was so graceful on the football field. So beautiful in a way that when we’re watching as a viewer, as a fan he brought us pleasure. And so we’re connected to this guy even though he’s just an image on the screen. And the same goes for him when we saw him running through the airport in Hertz commercials. I as a young kid adopted that when I was in the airport and I would try to be like see people in front of me I would try to avoid people and run around them like I was O.J. running through the airport.
And so there’s this thing that we feel like we know this person, that we feel connected to this person. And it informs so much of why we were so shocked and it was incomprehensible that someone like that could stand accused of murder when we enjoyed such – and it wasn’t just by the way because oh, he’s a good guy. He’s the guy I knew down the street for me. It’s that he brought us so much pleasure and the celebrity aspect to me is well that helps explain culturally a level of complicitness that we all have in building him into what we built him into. And so it shouldn’t be shocking that we were all sort of taken aback and we all were so emotionally invested in this thing in 1994 and 95 because it was so much more than just about O.J. Simpson and whether or not he was a murderer.
What I already brought to this story as far as my personal knowledge, my knowledge of O.J. as a football player. My knowledge for instance of him going to USC from the projects of Potrero Hill and knowing where USC was geographically located next to Watts. I came to it with a notion of okay, what I knew is that O.J. is this guy who notoriously tried to distance himself from his blackness. O.J. was put on trial I 1994 and he became a referendum on race in America.
He was as a defendant sort of race was primarily used to help acquit him. How do I get from here to there? That’s the irony in this story. How do this group of people who live beside him when he was at USC, when he was in this bubble, how do we get to a place over here where those people who he had nothing to do with all of a sudden were so invested in him. There were little things like that that I start off with as premises and the I go well, that’s the narrative I want to tell I’m going to at least go down these two paths simultaneously knowing that they’re going to intersect 20 to 30 years later. How specifically I’m going to weave those two things together, that’s editing. That’s further thought. That’s writing. That’s editing. But you have to start off with an idea to guide you as you’re going along.
We’re dealing with a story where unfortunately so much of what has been done in relation to it has been so thoughtless, salacious, sensationalist. And so when people sit down with someone who has thought a lot about it and is interested in the substantive parts of the story and the seriousness of it and not the salacious maybe they were refreshed. Maybe they thought okay, this is someone I can finally speak to about these things that have been in my head for so many years. But frankly no one wants to engage me about it in this way. Because in the end this is history. This is a document of history and that was the pitch to everyone. Sit down and tell me your story and I’ll respect your story. I’m not going to chop up your story into little bits so it’s unrecognizable. No, you fully get to be heard.