Note: The following was written June 26, 2016
The last installment of a five-part television series titled ‘O.J.: Made in America’ concluded last night. Ten hours of seductive film documenting not only the life of one of the greatest football players in the history of pro football but also his role as defendant in one of the most spellbinding murder trials in the annuls of American adjudication.
But to a greater degree, ‘O.J.: Made in America’ is a commentary on the one issue that has plagued this nation since its inception: Race. The murder trial of Orenthal James Simpson, in which he was being tried in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, began on January 25, 1995. It galvanized the attention and passion of just about everyone in the entire country (not to mention the curiosity of people around the globe) and forced Americans to address their innermost thoughts and emotions concerning race. Black versus white. The stubborn, unconquerable racial divide. For all of the so-called progress this country has made over the 400 or so years since the black man was brought to these shores in a state of violently repressive servitude, the OJ trial demonstrated that the attitudes and misunderstandings that serve to keep blacks separated from whites are more entrenched and undisturbed than we dare to admit.
The OJ murder trial was like a bandage abruptly removed from a wound that has not completely healed, causing it to begin bleeding anew, and in the process exposing the inability of blacks and whites to reconcile the inequality that still exist between them. In many ways, the perceived unfairness of the trial’s verdict–one which appeared to have allowed a guilty man to get away with murder–was the exact converse to what has been perpetrated against people of color for centuries. But the acquittal of OJ Simpson also demonstrated something else: class privilege.
“…I’m not black. I’m OJ.”
You see, OJ had the best legal representation money could buy, rare for a black man being tried by what has traditionally been a discriminatory judicial system. And he had celebrity. And that celebrity–grown and nurtured throughout his football-playing days and acting career–had provided to him entrée into the rarefied air of ‘white’ privilege. The Juice had transcended blackness. By his own words, he declared ‘…I’m not black, I’m OJ.’ This proved true as during the entire process of his arrest and subsequent ‘flight from justice’ in the infamous white Bronco chase witnessed by tens of millions of people on television, OJ was given preferential treatment by the authorities. Even the jury pool, typically racially stacked against a black man, was drawn from an inner-city constituency.
The celebrated attorney Johnny Cochran, who had represented African American defendants in Los Angeles for years and was a pebble in the shoe of that city’s DA’s office, was the spearhead of OJ’s high-powered team of defense lawyers (the others being Robert Shapiro, Robert Kardashian and F. Lee Bailey). He played the race card during the Simpson trial. And he played it hard. He had to. Not just because it was legally expedient. But also because it was relevant. The OJ trial was one of those opportunities to shed light on the double standard that has long wreaked havoc on African Americans in this country when it comes to law enforcement. It allowed for the eloquent Johnny Cochran to expose the heretofore inconsistencies of law enforcement’s method of policing black people in comparison to white people. It shined light on the prejudiced attitudes of law enforcement officers towards blacks. And it showed how race could not– should not –be taken out of the equation when inspecting how the prosecution gathered evidence and built its case against Simpson. Yes, the Juice had the best legal counsel money could buy. No need to plea bargain here.
And thus, the Juice got loose.