Sunday, September 25, 2016

Paying Attention to OJ Again

So, 2016 is the year that we all somehow collectively decided that it was time to reflect on the O.J. Simpson murder case. Two significant pieces of media helped get the youngsters up to speed and the old folks to relive the events of 1994-1995: ESPN's "O.J.: Made in America" documentary series, and the dramatization in FX's "The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story." I watched the former, but not the latter, though the miniseries has gotten good enough notices that I'm curious about it. I appreciate the documentary for filling in a lot of the details, and giving some important context that I'd been missing.

The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and the subsequent chase, arrest, and trial of O.J. Simpson happened when I was still in high school. I remember watching the chase, but had no idea why people were so interested because I had no idea who O.J. Simpson was. Nobody in my family followed football, and I hadn't seen any of the "Naked Gun" movies, where he appeared as a detective. More importantly, I didn't understand the celebrity culture, and the historical disadvantages faced by black men in the justice system. I didn't understand why some people so fervently, passionately cared about the outcome of the trial.

However, it was impossible to avoid the media circus around the case. Even though I was hardly paying attention, I quickly learned the names of all the major players involved: Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochrane, Judge Ito, Mark Fuhrman, and Kato Kaelin. It was the major topic of conversation for months, permeating the mainstream culture. Much of the trial was aired live, preempting the usual daytime programming. We got daily updates on what was going on in the courtroom from the nightly news, and the late night comedians were forever coming up with new angles to riff on the case. I remember the Marcia Clark impersonator flanked by a team of Dancing Itos. I remember "Seinfeld" parodying the chase with the Ford bronco. I remember reports of a Kato Kaelin cameo being cut from "Roseanne." O.J. Simpson was inescapable.

However, what was actually going on in the case itself was less clear to me. "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit" was about the extent of my understanding of the defense's case. Also, we were supposed to hate Mark Fuhrman. Somehow, my understanding of the prosecution's case was even worse. My biology teacher was constantly making "OJ did it" jokes in class. Nonetheless, I recall the verdict being reached one day, during the swimming unit of our gym class. We all got out of the pool and crowded around the teacher's radio to cheer at O.J. Simpson's acquittal. Personally, I was just glad that the trial was over and they'd stop screwing with the schedule of my after-school cartoons.

So clearly, I missed the O.J. Simpson trial the first time around. I wasn't really there for it the way most viewers were, and honestly I'm glad. Being able to look back on the events twenty years later, without all the distraction of the media and the fuss, is an unexpectedly positive thing, I've found. The seven plus hour "Made in America" documentary is excellent, largely because it spends so much of its running time laying that foundation of all the cultural and historical forces in play before delving into the events of 1994 and 1995. I have little more that's useful to say about the documentary except that I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it is absolutely worth sitting through the whole thing.

I suspect there are a lot of people like me, who didn't get the whole picture. Even those who had a strong interest in the O.J. Simpson trial and followed it closely in the 90s probably didn't understand everything that had lead up to the trial, or the impact that it had. Looking back now, there was television news coverage before O.J. and after O.J. Really, there was the American culture before O.J. and after O.J. And it's only now, twenty years later, that I can truly appreciate how terribly sad and unfortunate the whole mess was. And it's worth looking back and thinking about how and why it all happened.

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