The OJ Simpson story remains as enthralling as ever. The American football star is up for parole in October having served nine years of a 33-year prison sentence for robbery and kidnapping, but his most famous brush with the law remains his acquittal for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown.
It was the case that divided America along race lines and a new new seven-and-a-half hour documentary, which looks at the racial aspect of the case, OJ: Made in America, has just won the Best Documentary Oscar.
What can there possibly be new to say about OJ Simpson? His record-breaking football career was well storied, as was his move into acting, and then for a year between 1994 and 1995 you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without reading about the trial in which Simpson was accused of killing Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman. The trial was the focus of the Emmy award-winning show The People v. O.J. Simpson, just one of a number of shows looking at his crime.
His acquittal was met with joy and horror. Oscar winning documentarian Ezra Edelman was at college watching television when the verdict was announced on 3 October, 1995. The history graduate was praying that Simpson be found innocent. For him, this was not the story of a crime, but the trial of a race. Having seen four policeman declared innocent after being caught on camera beating Rodney King, he just wanted a black man to beat the system.
“Was I watching the television because I cared about this man’s freedom?” Edelman asks. “No. I cared about the history of injustice that was happening in this country.”
This documentary doesn’t care about whether Simpson was innocent. It’s wants to know how this trial could polarise a nation along race lines.
“You’re talking about a story that is one of the most divisive events in our culture," says Edelman. It’s the story about how black people and white people look at the same event, the same story and think something totally different. I had to tell a story about why this happened.”
For Edelman this is a story about Los Angeles and the frayed relationship between the police department and the black community. It’s the story of the Watts riots and the King beating. Events of such cultural magnitude that they made a hero out of Simpson, a man whose exploits on the field were often not matched by his actions off it.
“He was someone who was not held down by where he came from or the colour of his skin,” states Edelman. “What got me into telling this story is the way that I could use OJ to tell this greater story about Los Angeles and the longstanding stand-off between the community and the police department. What happens with OJ is that he gets to enjoy the dreams and reap the benefits of the city that other black people get shut out from, by reason of his celebrity.”
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Simpson’s second wife Brown had called the police numerous times to complain about domestic abuse. But because of Simpson’s celebrity and the prevailing sentiment on the sanctity of marriage he evaded any prison sanction. When he went on trial, he became a black hero. An odd outcome as Simpson had gone out of his way not to support the civil rights movement, or to be classed as a black man. He saw his fame as making him above race. A view reinforced by his favourable treatment by society.
“It’s a deeper portrait of a country,” argues Edelman about his documentary. “It’s the people who have experience being black in America and the indignities that come with that. To see the most famous and entitled person be on trial and to have so many people vested in his acquittal when he’s so not representative of the people, that is the tragedy.”
Edelman himself was vested in his acquittal and in many ways the documentary is an answer to the question of how he could have wanted a man to be declared innocent, when a cold rational look at the facts leads to the view that he was guilty.
“There were all these white Americans who were thinking why are black people celebrating because a murderer got let off. No, that’s not why they were celebrating. So I wanted to tell the story where for a few hours before the murder you get to experience the history and the injustice. You’re going to sink into your seat and go, I didn’t realise.”
But Edelman has also had to backtrack on his initial view and accept that Simpson was probably guilty. “Twenty years on and you’re a black person and you’ve previously allowed your politics to enable you to ignore the details of the case and flower your opinion of OJ but he was on trail for murder and two wrongs don’t make a right. You look back and think 'maybe I should have checked myself'. Now I can look at the case with clear eyes and say I think he was guilty, whereas before I would not have allowed myself to acknowledge that. Two people were murdered and I think that was forgotten.”
But the big concern for Edelman having made this epic documentary is how OJ’s celebrity meant that even after he lost a civil case over the murder he was still feted by people. “The scourge of celebrity,” states Edelman. “Even after he’s been convicted in the civil trial you still have people come up to him and want to shake his hand. Why? Because he’s on TV every day and he’s famous.”
The film follows the life of Simpson after the acquittal, his years living large in Miami, before a move to Las Vegas, where on one fateful day he organised the robbery of a man selling Simpson merchandise. A crime every bit as surreal as it sounds. The justice system hammered OJ this time, handing him a sentence much larger than the crime.
Yet Edelman worries that the lessons have not been learned. Notoriety and infamy are easily forgiven in America, a country where celebrity has a value like nowhere else. He thinks the same malaise that allowed many to suppose Simpson has resulted in President Trump entering the White House.
“To have a guy in the White House because he is a celebrity,” argues Edelman. “The themes are strikingly familiar. I think that there is a lesson to have - the complicity in all of us, in the rise of OJ with the rise of Trump.”
'OJ: Made in America' is available on the BBC iplayer. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 17 April
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