Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ezra Edleman | O. J.: Made in America

the saddest story ever told
by Douglas Messerli

Ezra Edleman’s five-part documentary, O. J.: Made in America, is so many different things that it is difficult to untwine them; but then they are, after all, completely intertwined, which is precisely what makes this “American tragedy” so appalling and compelling to watch.
      Of course, Orenthal James Simpson was, first of all, a brilliant football player (although equally talented, it appears, in other sports as well) growing up in a nation of obsessed sports watchers. Even as a teenager O.J. stood out, and in his playing at the University of Southern California—for which he won the prestigious Heisman Trophy—and his 11 seasons with the Buffalo Bills and his season with the San Francisco 49ers, over the years in which he ran for over 2,000 yards, proved he was a remarkable, even god-like player, easily awarding him induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. He was, clearly, a man on the run, which Hertz rental cars, displaying him, in their ads, as faultlessly leaping over barriers in order to reach their awaiting gems, indelibly projected Simpson into American television viewer’s imaginations.

Even his mediocre film career, including minor roles in Roots, The Klansman, The Towering Inferno, The Cassandra Crossing, and Capricorn One helped to catapult him into an American hero. O.J. was not just talented, moreover, but was a born-again charmer, a man, apparently, who could convert even the most cynical doubter to become a deep fan; he gave to hundreds of charities, answered thousands of letters, shook everyone’s hand. He appeared to be a poster boy for the American Dream. From the projects in San Francisco, this handsome black man had moved up in the American cultural stratosphere to represent to all blacks and young, poor whites, that if you were talented enough, charmed enough, and cared enough, you could make it in this country.
       So successful was O.J. that neither he nor most of his admirers seemed to care about his race. He was simply one of “us”; or, as Edleman and his brilliant editors reveal, he was a being who had transcended race. “The Juice,” clearly, saw himself as a sort of white proxy, with a beautiful white “trophy” wife in Nicole Brown, and with beautifully “tan” children, living in the splendor of West Los Angeles on the prestigious and basically hidden away community near Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood. O.J. was not only respectable, in the public eyes, but now regularly invited police officers to his estate, and, while keeping close of his old football-playing friends such as Al Cowlings, befriended Robert Kardashian and numerous other whites, many of them friends of Nicole. The Juice had long abandoned the black community and his roots in it, and had, as even he perceived it, transcended issues of black and white skin differences. In his own imagination he towered far above these issues, simply based on his achievements and charm. He was not a black hero, but an “American” one.
       At the very same moment, however, as Edleman reminds us, Los Angeles was itself suffering from racist “wars.” The 1991 beating of Rodney King (see My Year 2010) and the following riots resulting from the involved policemen’s acquittal in a Simi Valley courtroom soon following. The city became, quite literally, inflamed from the years of police brutality that blacks had suffered. Although the terrible “second Watts riot” eventually was quelled, the emotional suffering remained in the smoldering ruins and black citizens’ hearts. Even today, the city suffers still from the tear of racial divides. Koreans feared blacks; blacks were at odds from their Hispanic neighbors, and all feared enforcement and lack of enforcement of the white-controlled police and firemen. The very same year as the riots, O.J.s wife, Nicole, filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences.” She had kept records of the several beatings she had suffered from her husband, and family members were terrified by O. J.’s outbursts.
       Despite Simpson’s own cocooned life in Brentwood, accordingly, it is impossible to separate him and the racial divides of the community at large. Certainly Simpson might not be able to have actually witnessed the numerous fires throughout the city during the King riots that I and my companion Howard were able to, but surely he felt their heat.
       After a dinner outing with her children at a local Brentwood Italian restaurant on June 12, two years later, Nicole Brown and a waiter at the restaurant, Ron Goldman, were found dead outside of her Brentwood condominium, brutally stabbed to death. The extent of her wounds was so severe that police could only describe her as being nearly beheaded. Edelman’s documentary even reveals, through brief photographs, how horrific this murder was.
       As we now all know, and quite intelligently recounted in The O. J. Simpson Trial of this same year (reviewed above), Simpson’s shoes matched the bloody tracks throughout the murder scene, one of his own gloves was found at the murder site. Blood was later discovered in his Broncho, parked outside his Rockingham home, that matched his own DNA, that of Nicole’s and that of Ron Goldman’s. The second glove was found in the back of the estate, after a friend, Kato Kaelin, living on Simpson’s property, described a thunderous noise earlier in the evening. Simpson, meanwhile, had flown off to Chicago, arriving home in apparent shock to the news about his wife’s death. He never once, so friends reported, seemed to worry about his children, leaving them in the same condominium where Nicole was killed to possibly wander out and discover the horror.
       Soon after, everyone with any sense of logic believed that Simpson had indeed killed his wife, particularly when, after his lawyer Robert Shapiro and his friend Robert Kardashian had to report his missing at the very moment he had been scheduled to turn himself in to police. His surreal journey in his white Bronco through the Southern California freeways seemed even to friends like Ron Shipp to give evidence of his guilt. A letter he had left read more like a suicide note than a justification of his escape.

     Unlike Scott Alexander’s and Larry Karaszewski’s The O. J. Simpson Trial, Edleman’s work does not focus on the trial itself. Although the documentary clearly presents the major issues surrounding that trial (the dark history of Detective Mark Furhman, the publicity highjinks of Johnnie Cochran, the obvious failures of the Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, and Gil Garcetti, and the incompetence of Judge Lance Ito), Edleman’s work, seeking out interviews with most of these figures, tries to seriously comprehend why the jury, after spending more than a year impaneled in the trial, could in just a few hours determine that Simpson was innocent of all crimes.
       Some of the jurors interviewed clearly agree that it was “payback” for the Rodney King trial and all the years of black abuse by LA police. Others proclaimed that the prosecution simply did not properly make their case. What is apparent—and was to me also the day those headlines broke—is that the jury decision split the Los Angeles community into two once more: blacks and all others. It was not simply a matter of black or white; all of my white and Hispanic friends were convinced of Simpson’s guilt; my fewer black friends were certain of his innocence.
       Having played the race card in order to escape imprisonment and possible death, Simpson, Edleman’s film reveals, was ostracized by the same Brentwood community in which he had long lived and by his white friends. Suffering a devastating civil trial brought against him and the righteous Goldman’s and universal hatred by the people he once perceived himself equal to, O. J. was forced, himself, to play the “race” card, trying to renegotiate his “transcendent” identity with a black community to which he had previously few ties. His spin into complete debauchery, given his financial difficulties and the lack of the devoted fans on which he had so long depended, resulted in an attempt to simply “get back” what he felt was legally his, a few trophies, some signed photographs, and other football memorabilia. By the time he and a few other friends descended upon a former acquaintance’s Las Vegas hotel room, guns to head, it seems apparent that “the Juice” had lost control of even his mind. No charm could now be released him from years of imprisonment.
      Whether or not it was completely justified, that it might have been the white man’s “payback” for his escape from justice, there is an utterly painful despair in the outcome. Simpson was, sad to say, simply a product of the American system, a young man from poverty temporarily given the keys to the kingdom without his ability to know what to do with them, and how to transform his own personal demons into the world that glowingly stood before him. If his wife and Goldman were stupidly destroyed by that ignorance and his inability to recognize his own differences from the dreams he harbored, Simpson, himself, was devoured by those same dreams. The saddest thing in the world to report is that he was never “one of us”—whoever and whatever any of “us” may be. The “Juice” was a marvelous running machine who was born to be a permanent “outsider” with no way in to the society in which he had come to believe he had been given entry. As Ford Maddox Ford wrote so many years ago, early in his The Good Soldier, “This is the saddest story I have ever told.” Unfortunately, it has been told too many, many times throughout American history. 
     In the end, Edleman’s documentary reminded me, more than anything else, of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s amazing 14-part Berlin Alexanderplatz (see My Year 2015). With music by Gary Lionelli that reminded me, at times, of the score of the Fassbinder work by Peer Raben, Franz Bieberkof’s fall from societal acceptance is quite similar to Simpson’s. Certainly Simpson was far more intelligent than the hard-working but rather dense-minded Bieberkof; yet his “fall,” again from violence, after he murders his lover, and his inabilities to discern the shifting dynamics of the society in which he lived, make Simpson’s story, somehow, very similar to that of the German dunce. Both were offered and reciprocated with societal charm, which, nonetheless, could ultimately not save them from their isolation from the worlds which they sought to be part of. If Bieberkof, in his own thinking, was simply a decent man, so too was Simpson, unable (much like the German figure) to comprehend how his own acts represented something very different. In both men, the outer shell of personality and the inner soul of intellect simply could not conjoin to make them real human beings. Both were torn apart by themselves in a society that had bred them to do just that.

Los Angeles, March 6, 2017

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