In the first episode of Ezra Edelman’s massive documentary, “O.J.: Made In America,” one of his sources describes Orenthal James Simpson as “a counterrevolutionary athlete.” It’s a phrase that aptly sums up the way Simpson avoided becoming involved in the civil rights movement as other athletes took up the causes of black power and black equality. And it also helps explain why Edelmen’s seven-and-a-half-hour movie feels fresh and exciting, even after “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” aired on FX this spring and even after decades of attempts to figure out the athlete at the center of one of the most incendiary trials in American history.
The conventional narrative of race and Simpson’s trial for the murder of his second wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman is that the case exposed a gap between black and white Americans. The former supposedly saw the trial as a case of a largely white, racist police department trying to bring down a prominent black man — or at least were willing to root for Simpson to see the Los Angeles Police Department go down to an ignominious defeat. And the latter initially understood the case primarily as a crime of domestic violence and only later came to be horrified by African American anger at the police.
If this is a schematic that has allowed white observers of the case to feel good about themselves, first for championing Nicole Brown Simpson’s memory and later for being enlightened abut the persistence of American racism, “O.J.: Made In America” suggests something less simple and less admirable. White people were so invested in Simpson and the ideas he represented that when it all ended in murder and catastrophe, they saw themselves as betrayed and victimized, too.
Simpson lived an astonishingly well-documented life from an early age. And in the footage from interviews he did as a star football player at the University of Southern California and in his early years in Hollywood, Simpson comes across as almost aggressively uninterested in politics and consistent in his belief that his own excellence was all he needed to succeed.
“I’m not too well-enlightened on the situation,” he says in one interview when he’s asked about the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which advocated a boycott of the 1968 games; Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black-power salutes on the medal podium were a response when the project’s conditions weren’t met.
In another conversation, Simpson walks a narrow line, not quite denigrating the athletes who are protesting, but also questioning why the movement would be relevant to him. “What they think is right, I guess they have to follow their beliefs,” Simpson muses. “Right now, I don’t want to be involved in it, because I’m not in track. I’m running track. But when it comes to the Olympic time, I’ll be in football. So right now I have no comment.”
And deeper into his professional football career, Simpson would be blunter. “I’ve had a lot of pressure on me to go into politics,” Simpson says in another interview. “I think they tried to use us, and in many cases, it hurt guys.”
Not only did Simpson appear to reject what black activists said was the road to equality, he actively embraced an approach that was built on white admiration and white ideas of what success and polish looked like.
“He was anxious to make sure that he did things correctly, that his diction was appropriate,” recalls Mark Morris, who as an advertising executive helped design the Hertz campaign that made Simpson famous. One of his ABC colleagues remembers that, “We obviously wanted him to be able to speak proper English and eliminate slang, and he didn’t ever take offense at that. It was ‘Thank you. Okay. I got it.'”
As former Hertz chief executive Frank Olson puts it, “For us, O.J. was colorless. … O.J. portrayed success. Success from nowhere.” And success on terms that didn’t require white Americans to feel uncomfortable or to make sacrifices for their fellow Americans, but rather that allowed white business executives to get rich and stay unperturbed.
“I walked into the room and I never thought that I was the first black guy to do it. I never gave it any credence,” Simpson says at one point in the documentary. He’s describing himself as comfortable in all-white environments. By extension, if Simpson didn’t see color, he was granting white people forgiveness for not having been conscious of racial inequality or exclusion, either. If, in his famous formulation, he wasn’t black, he was O.J., Simpson could be the first black person in all-white environments without challenging the status quo.
“He flew a flag at Rockingham every day. He loved America, he loved the red white and blue, he loved that feeling that you get on the fourth of July and seeing jets fly over. And during the Olympics when he carried the torch, that was a big thing to him,” his agent, Mike Gilbert, remembered. “That was one of the things we talked about, for years afterword, how perfect the world was then.”
And for a time, Simpson’s success made America seem perfect to other people, too, a place where a poor black man who made the right choices could achieve tremendous wealth, fame and adoration. If other people couldn’t do what Simpson did, that was their fault, not America’s. Protests and riots weren’t a dangerous symptom of a national disease, in this way of thinking; they were a misguided choice.
That, I think, was Simpson’s auxiliary crime for a lot of white people. When he was charged with killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, O.J. Simpson killed the idea that so many of his white fans and friends held onto so tenaciously, that all was well in America. Simpson made white people feel like their trust in him, and in the system that produced him, had been misplaced.
“I was so disappointed. I just had no comprehension about it, no knowledge,” Olson says of the testimony about Simpson’s record of domestic violence during the trial. “It’s like finding out your wife’s a bad person, you know?”
A majority-black jury may have acquitted Simpson of Brown Simpson and Goldman’s murders, convinced by the defense team’s arguments that Simpson was a victim of racism. But the strategy that saved Simpson from a guilty verdict also served as his punishment: Simpson was free at the end of the trial, but he was also defined by his race in a way he had tried to outrun his entire life. “All of a sudden, the system has forced me to look at things racially,” Simpson lamented during jury selection. By the end of the trial, he was no longer O.J., the sole member of a distinct and transcendent category. He was black.